The Nine Noble Virtues
In evil never joy shalt thou know,
But glad the good shall make thee. (Hávamál 130)
Around the Western World there is an ongoing discussion about the crisis of values. Politicians, philosophers, churchmen and people everywhere complain in unison that values have obviously lost much of their influence and importance in our times.
A look into the news seems to confirm that. Every day there is crime, abuse, hatred, fraud and deceit. Western societies appear to have lost the bonds that kept them together. The way people treat each other often follows but one single rule: everybody looks after one’s own profit.
With values obviously going down, not everybody misses them. Values have widely lost their positive connotations. From being understood as guidelines through the turbulences of life they have come to be seen as obstacles to individual freedom, as moral fetters chaining us to the consciousness of bygone ages. Nowadays, many people consider it justified to break the rules to get ahead.
People have always looked at religion and spirituality when it came to the definition of values. How does modern nature spirituality (paganism and related paths) respond to this?
While we all will agree that we have common values, our agreement usually ends when we come to the question what these values are.
More and more pagans feel that their traditions fail when it comes to giving them a few elemental guidelines for life: a few basic values to hold on to, a framework in which they can unfold their being, simple rules how to deal with the adversities of life.
The Germanic traditions have always emphasized the importance of values. Many source texts contain rules for honourable conduct and recommendations for a good life. On the basis of the Poetic Edda, Northern European and Icelandic sagas and Germanic folklore, a system of Germanic values called the Nine Noble Virtues was first codified in England in the mid 1970‘s. They are meanwhile accepted by most followers of a Germanic tradition as a common code of honour and outline for life. The Nine Noble Virtues are
7. Self Reliance
The son of a king shall be silent and wise,
And bold in battle as well;
Bravely and gladly a man shall go,
Till the day of his death is come. (Hávamál 15)
In the classical sense, courage means to overcome our fear in a dangerous situation and accomplish something good without regard of our own safety. When we think of courage in a Germanic context, we often think of shield-wall and battle and days when kingdoms were won and lost by the sword.
However, even if most of us are leading rather ordinary lives today, we still need courage in many situations. In a wider sense, courage means to overcome our (sometimes irrational) fears and to persist in unpleasant situations.
It requires courage to consciously place oneself outside of the contemporary materialistic culture and not to partake in the strategies of consume and demand, where the value of a human being is his/her bank account and modern „gods“ are worshipped in „consume temples“, as shopping malls are sometimes called.
It is debated among pagans if we should be open about our religion or rather keep it to ourselves. The decision is personal and depends on the situation. While it is sometimes better to remain silent, there will be other times when we simply have to stand up and defend our views. If we decide to act we need courage, for we stand outside of mainstream culture in a double sense: as spiritual people in a materialistic world and as pagans in an environment that acknowledges only „established“ religions.
There are many examples for courage in daily situations. It may be the courage to speak up against injustice, mobbing and discrimination in our workplace. It may be the courage to confront somebody who takes away our or other people’s rights. It may be the courage that we need to keep our traditions free of right-wing views, racism and prejudice. If we belong to a language minority, it may take courage to use our ancestral language even if it is considered outdated by many.
All contemporary pagan traditions are based on honouring nature and the Earth. The protection and improvement of our natural heritage often needs courage, be it the courage to ask for natural/biological alternatives in a store, write letters to media and politicians in matters of ecological importance or even become an nature/animal protection activist.
Courage is linked to honour. A courageous act will increase our honour, while an act without honour will rarely be called courageous.
Then second I rede thee, to swear no oath
If true thou knowest it not;
Bitter the fate of the breaker of troth,
And poor is the wolf of his word. (Sigrdrifumál 24)
In Western societies, life is regulated by laws. Laws are enforced by sanctions: if you steal, you will go to prison. It is supposed that people refrain from breaking the laws to avoid the sanctions.
A system of values such as the Nine Noble Virtues goes far beyond that, because it is ultimately based upon personal honour. We choose to act - or not to act – not to avoid sanctions, but because we want to increase our personal honour. The first prerequisite of honour is truth, to be honest with oneself and others.
There is personal truth and Higher Truth. Personal truth means honesty, keeping away from lies, deceit, boasting and rumours. Our ancestors knew well that lies can kill (see Hávamál 120). Truth means to speak the truth if we know it, even if we are the only ones who do so. Truth also means to speak up when everybody else remains silent in the face of a lie.
However, truthfulness does not mean always to tell 100% truth regardless of the consequences. Truth has many different expressions, from the subtle manoeuvres of Odin to the straightforward action of Thor. There is a French proverb saying „toute vérité n‘est pas bonne à savoir“ (not all truths are good to be known).
Truth also includes wisdom and knowledge. Wisdom was highly valued in all Germanic cultures and no other than Odin himself gave the ultimate sacrifice on his quest for wisdom: the sacrifice of the self.
In our times of internet and global mail order it has become easy to gather information about the ways of our ancestors. Networking and discussion groups are available. Wisdom is partly a gift by the gods, but knowledge is a product of hard work. The time, effort and money a pagan spends on the quest for knowledge is indeed an Odinic sacrifice and it is our firm belief that such a sacrifice will be rewarded.
While truth means different things to different people, there is also Higher Truth, the ultimate truth that is the same for all people of all nations and ages. Higher Truth is the goal of every seeker. Like the Holy Grail we may never find it, but when we stop our quest we will (spiritually) cease to exist.
Truth can be an act of courage and increases our honour. It also encourages loyalty because people are more likely to trust a person who has a reputation to speak the truth.
Cattle die, and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one’s self;
But a noble name will never die,
If good renown one gets. (Hávamál 76)
Honour is the basis of the whole system. If we study the myths and sagas of our ancestors it becomes clear that honour was absolutely essential to them.
In several English-speaking countries of today the title „Honourable“ denotes a high-ranking official whose office is supposed to bring something good for the country and the people.
There is external and internal honour. External honour is reputation and the Hávamál states that our honour may still live on while we are long gone. Honour is the echo that our life leaves back in Midgard. Honour involves dignity, reverence and respect for oneself and others.
Internal honour is like an inner guide telling us what to do and how to proceed. It is rooted in ourselves and in the knowledge that what we believe in and what we do is right before ourselves, before other people and before the gods and goddesses. Honour is the deep knowledge that we can always take full responsibility for our actions
– because we have done the right thing. It is the inner quietness and contentness that comes from feeling sheltered and at home in one’s spiritual tradition.
Honour means that we should act at the best of our abilities and possibilities. Honour is not about seeking what is easy, but seeking what is best. There should be no guilt or regrets. In this, honour is linked to courage.
One aspect of honour is justice. If we hand down injustice to others, it decreases our honour. Living with honour always means to respect and guard the honour of others! If we suffer injustice against ourselves without trying to change it, we also take away from our honour. To be treated in a just way is a human right claimed by our ancestors from the earliest days.
Another aspect of honour is truth. If we always speak the truth so that others can rely on us, we gain honour.
If our words and our deeds go together and others trust us, we gain honour. If our promises and our oaths are kept and fulfilled, we gain honour. People will come to us for advice and trust our word when it is given, not waiting for confirmation by others, and this will again increase our honour.
If we live in honour, we can add something good to the world, to our faith and our community.
As we have shown above, honour is linked to truth and to courage.
I rede thee, Loddfafnir! and hear thou my rede,-
Profit thou hast if thou hearest,
Great thy gain if thou learnest:
Be never the first to break with thy friend
The bond that holds you both;
Care eats the heart if thou canst not speak
To another all thy thought. (Hávamál 123)
Fidelity in its original sense means being faithful and loyal to someone or something.
Since we are talking about a religious system of values here, the most important aspect of loyalty is loyalty to the gods and goddesses.
It has been said that the relationship between most Germanic deities and their followers resembles pretty much that of a Germanic chieftain and his sworn warriors. It is a loyalty towards both sides. Like the follower of a chief of old, we need to offer our honesty, faithfulness and loyalty to the gods. The gods will provide in turn their blessings, protection and guidance.
In the Germanic traditions it is possible to attach ourselves in a special way (usually marked by an oath) to a god or goddess to whom we feel especially drawn. We honour such deities with the Old Norse word fulltrúi (patron god) or fulltrúa (patron goddess), meaning „fully trusted one“.
Loyalty means also loyalty to the ways of our ancestors. We are guardians of our ancestral cultural and spiritual heritage. As pagans we try to use the wisdom of our ancestors for a meaningful life today. A 100% reconstruction of the religion of our ancestors is impossible since many parts have been lost. In their replacement we have to proceed in a cautious, responsible and meaningful way. Inconsiderate import of elements from other traditions will water our religion down. Never too look over our hedge will create standstill. A careful middle path between conservation and development is necessary.
Another important aspect of fidelity is loyalty to one‘s spouse, family, tribe and religious group. The bond of friendship was considered sacred by our ancestors. It means not to betray one‘s friends, to share one‘s possessions and thoughts with them, to stand with them in times of (real) need and to defend them against their enemies. Injustice against our family, our tribe and everybody else to whom we have social or religious bonds was seen like an injustice against oneself by our ancestors.
Loyalty does not mean to help people who are obviously working against the common good or whose actions go against our personal convictions.
Since our personal convictions and how we see the „common good“ are pretty much a matter of personal definition, situations will occur where we disagree with others about the amount of loyalty we – or others - should have. This does not concern our loyalty towards the gods, which in the Germanic traditions is expressed by oaths and promises. But loyalty towards other people is the one value which is probably widest open for definition and discussion.
In groups of people, be they of a spiritual nature or not, it is probably best if all participants could agree on a basic set of rules that includes an idea of how much loyalty is expected by every member. It could save a lot of discussion if problems occur later. The existence of mini-groups inside a larger group is not good in terms of loyalty, because members could find themselves in a situation where they feel the need to choose between the smaller and the larger group.
In this light, truth and honour becomes very important. You have to act honourably and truthfully, both for yourself and your friends. Not asking too much or too little of our friends in terms of loyalty is a matter of honour, and truth is the basis for all our dealings with others, especially with friends.
Therefore, honour and truth are the most important values connected to loyalty.
Less good there lies than most believe
In ale for mortal men;
For the more he drinks the less does man
Of his mind the mastery hold. (Hávamál 12)
While we do not believe in the Christian concept of sin, we acknowledge the old and simple truth that too much of a good thing will reverse its effects into something bad. There are many instances in the poems of the Elder Edda where we are advised to exercise moderation.
This does not only refer to eating and drinking too much, it generally means to have ourselves under control. Our Germanic ancestors are sometimes depicted as bloodthirsty warriors who threw themselves into a battle rage every now and then and lay around on bearskins gulping incredible amounts of mead all the other time. This is not what we read in the old sagas and myths. There it is made clear that those people were most respected who had themselves under control.
This does not mean to deny ourselves all pleasures! It means to excert reasonable self-discipline, to conserve our energies and direct our will at the really important things we want to achieve. Discipline is controlled will and the avoidance of chaos. It means to uphold our virtues and follow them in our daily lives.
In the context of religion and spirituality, it also means that we keep the discipline to stick to the ways of our ancestors. Nowadays, many pagans jump from faith to faith and practice to practice. With the amount of information available it is easy to construct one’s own religion from the elements of a dozen other paths from around the world. While this is not necessarily wrong and may perfectly meet the needs of the individual, it would not make sense in connection with a path that claims to be rooted in our ancestral Germanic heritage.
In limiting ourselves to one path, we gain security, we gain roots and we gain the peace of mind that comes from
feeling at home in our tradition. Since we are not constantly exploring a new tradition or a deity from a completely different pantheon or a new concept, we are less likely to always need to prove ourselves and ask ourselves if we are on the right path.
This is not to say that we choose a religion, sit down and relax! Every pagan path demands regular reconsideration and effort. But I feel that a spiritual path should not be like a fashion where something new has to come up every month or so.
Self-control and moderation will help us to maintain our dignity, and dignity contributes to our honour. There is also a connection between discipline and loyalty.
I rede thee, Loddfafnir! and hear thou my rede,-
Profit thou hast if thou hearest,
Great thy gain if thou learnest:
Curse not thy guest, nor show him thy gate,
Deal well with a man in want. (Hávamál 137)
Hospitality does not only mean how we treat our guests, it generally refers to the way how we deal with others, the ways we create and maintain our social fabric.
It should be selfunderstanding that we treat not only our kith and kin, but everybody with respect and dignity. This includes the followers of other religions and spiritual paths. „Christian-bashing“ has become a form of entertainment in some pagan circles, but it doesn’t bring us and our path one single inch forward.
One aspect of hospitality is generosity. A common kenning (poetic expression) for a leader was „ring giver“ because it was expected that leaders be generous. Since Germanic society functioned along the lines of „give and return“, a gift or favour received created a duty to return the favour one day, even if at a different scale or indirectly. This way, an act of hospitality established a common bond between two people and many bonds made a close-knit society.
Hospitality also includes how we adress the social problems of our times like mass unemployment, poverty, crime etc. In the ancient times hospitality was a question of survival. The poor, the sick and the outcast of today’s world struggle for survival as well. However, to be lazy and rely on other people’s generosity is not in the range of this value.
Of course, hospitality will take on more personal forms when we deal with our friends, relatives or fellow pagans. The Hávamál has perhaps more stanzas about friendship than on any other subject. Hospitality is of special value in the pagan communities as most of us still hold meetings and rituals in private homes.
Hospitality is linked with honour and discipline. Guests who abuse the hospitality and generosity of their hosts put their reputation and their status as guests at risk.
He must early go forth whose workers are few,
Himself his work to seek;
Much remains undone for the morning-sleeper.
For the swift is wealth half won. (Hávamál 59)
In order to achieve any material or spiritual goal, there is always one necessary ingredient: hard work. There is an old German saying „Hilf dir selbst, dann hilft dir Gott“ (help yourself and god will help you). This is not to say that we aren’t sometimes gifted with something, but a gift is the exception, hard work is the rule.
Industriousness generally advocates a creative, productive and active lifestyle.
Hard work was a question of survival for our ancestors. Today, we still need to work to clad and nourish ourselves, and while the immediate working conditions in today’s business world may be more comfortable, there are other hardships now that our ancestors didn’t know: stress related illnesses, nervous breakdown, burnout syndrom, back pain from constant sitting, financial problems, tyrannic supervisors, all the problems that come from living in big cities etc. Modern offices sometimes resemble the battlefields of the past, only the weapons are different.
Industriousness means not to define, frame and forget our values, but to let them manifest in the whole way how we lead our life. Living our values we can become living examples of our tradition and ambassadors of a spiritual lifestyle in general.
Industriousness also means to stand up and actively work for our spiritual path. We enjoy many publications now on certain fields of paganism, but there are still other areas where information is scarce or nonexistant. To fill one such gap, to chart one such „white spot“ on the map would be a mark of honour for every pagan.
Another idea, the gods are pleased when we honour them in ritual, invocation and poetry. Writing one’s own ritual texts creates new and personal ways to approach the gods, it trains one’s creativity, contributes to the Skaldic tradition and increases the honour of the gods. There are so many ways how we can be busy!
On the spiritual plane, industriousness is about finding our purpose in life and maintaining it. Sometimes the purpose of life is called „True Will“ or „True Self“. It means to find out who we really are and what the gods intend us to do with our life.
When we are drawn to a spiritual path, we generally seek a new way of life, answers to what life is about and what we can do to change for the best. Industriousness teaches us to make the best of ourselves.
Not only to do something, but to do it well, links industriousness to honour. Not just to complete a task, but to complete it with the utmost of our ability will increase our reputation and our self-esteem. Another, obvious link exists with discipline. Discipline is needed in order to be industrious.
Better a house, though a hut it be,
A man is master at home;
A pair of goats and a patched-up roof
Are better far than begging. (Hávamál 36)
Being self-reliant or self-standing means not to depend on others, both on the material and the spiritual plane. It is a form of great freedom, but a freedom that needs to be governed by wisdom.
Self-reliance means to make up our own mind, make our own decisions and live our own lives. It includes to take responsibility for our lives and to bear the consequences of our actions without looking for others to blame.
It has become en vogue to blame „the system“ for anything that goes wrong with one’s life. While the political, economical or social system of our country may indeed be unfair, we have to accept it if we can’t change it and try to improve our position rather than do nothing and complain.
Self-reliance has a material dimension. The Hávamál quotation for this chapter suggests that a simple, self-standing lifestyle is better than to depend on others.
Being self-reliant does not mean to be able to purchase many things. There is a difference between need and desire. We are free to make our choices in a mature and responsible way as to what things in life are really important to us. Constantly running after the latest must-have posession leaves little time for other things.
Followers of different spiritual traditions have found that controlling one’s material desires allows a more independent and spiritually rewarding life. Knowing this, several religions (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism) ask a „vow of poverty“ of part of their clergy.
This is not to say that we need to be poor to lead a spiritual life, or are denied to enjoy the fruits of our labour. It means that we take our life in our hands and set our own priorities in a responsible and self-standing way.
Self-reliance is linked to courage, honour and industriousness. Sometimes it takes courage to take the responsibility for our actions on ourselves. Being self-standing and independent will increase our honour. Self-reliance is achieved through industriousness, both on the material and spiritual plane.
Away from his arms in the open field
A man should fare not a foot;
For never he knows when the need for a spear
Shall arise on the distant road. (Hávamál 38)
Perseverance is that which is needed in living all other values. As stated above, success is mostly the product of hard work and we need to continue our efforts if we want to reach our goals, be they of a material or spiritual nature. To continue also means to start anew if we are thrown back by failure. Honour is not gained by picking up the pieces that come easy to us, but by overcoming our personal limitations and the obstacles on our path through hard work and – sometimes - struggle.
Life is not always easy and sometimes the sense of failure or bad luck may be so overwhelming that we are tempted to call it a day, give it all up and surrender our goals to the flow of time. It is not a shame to fail, even the Aesir (gods) suffered defeat, as the story of Balder’s death shows. And yet the sagas and myths are full of stories of heroes overcoming great obstacles and finally gaining victory. In this sense, we still can be heroes today by just continuing to go after our goals.
All this translates into our spiritual lives as well. Sometimes the gods don’t seem to hear us. Sometimes what we have planned to be a splendid ritual ends up in a mess. Sometimes a visualization exercise just doesn’t work. In a group there will at times be quarrel and disappointment instead of unity and friendship. There are days when our spiritual life may seem useless, without reward or downright boring. As long as keep our perseverance we can still start anew and give it another try!
Perseverance is connected with self-reliance and industriousness. We must look for solutions and ideas in order to complete a task. Not to give up early will also increase our honour.
A better burden may no man bear
For wanderings wide than wisdom;
It is better than wealth on unknown ways,
And in grief a refuge it gives. (Hávamál 10)
We have now finished our journey through the Nine Noble Virtues. They are not set in front of us like the moral codes of the big religions, carved in stone for all times. These values are quite flexible. They are all interdependent (depending on each other and on the environment/situation) and always open for personal evaluation.
This way they correspond brilliantly with the Germanic concept of „fate“ which is called Wyrd and does not mean a future that is laid down in eternity by an all-guiding hand, but a dynamical process of becoming, which creates itself always new out of its own causes.
In the end it remains in the responsibility of every practitioner how deeply he or she wants to get involved with a honour code. It is a question of personal honour, a honour that is always paired with wisdom. Of course it also stands in the freedom of the practitioner to add other values as is seen fit. Values like equality (of race, gender, religion etc.), wisdom, generosity and boldness appear in more recent suggestions of moral codes based on the wisdom of our Germanic ancestors.
I am greatly indebted to Freya Kä for her numerous and invaluable contributions to this article. Thank you!!
Many authors have dealt with the role of virtues in Germanic belief. Their findings serve as inspiration and food for thought. I am especially indebted to the following three essays:
Raven Kindred: http://www.webcom.com/~lstead/RBValues.html
The Troth: Our Troth (book), Chapter 27, Troth and the Folk; not available online
All quotations from the Poetic Edda in this article are taken from the Bellows translation, online under: