Honor: “I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means”

Johannnes Flintoe – Egill Skallagrímsson engaging in holmgang with Berg-Önundr



By Christopher Scott Thompson

The topic of “honor” is of interest to some heathens and pagans, especially those who see themselves as being on a “warrior path.” According to the “Heathen Handbook” () of the Wodens Folk Kindred:

Honor is the foundation of heathen society. Honor is a person’s measure of their virtue and worth… A person’s honor comes from within…

This reminds me of a scene from the movie Rob Roy, in which the title character (a Highland warrior of the 18th century) tells his boys that honor is “a gift you give yourself,” and that no one can take it away from you.

Unfortunately, this is not a historically accurate understanding of honor, either in the Gaelic society portrayed in the movie or in ancient Norse society. However, it’s no accident that the Wodens Folk Kindred and the screenwriter of Rob Roy misinterpreted honor in exactly the same way, because modern American society no longer values honor as much as it once did and has largely forgotten what it originally meant.

In American society not so long ago, honor had nothing to do with your internal measure of your own worth, it definitely didn’t come from within and other people could easily take it away from you. According to the Missouri state government archives article on Southern dueling culture:

The duel usually developed out of the desire of a gentleman to rectify a perceived insult to his honor. It was thought better to die respectably in a duel over an insult than to live on without honor… Only gentlemen were thought to have honor, and therefore eligible to duel. To maintain status and social standing a gentleman had to be willing to take his chances on the field of honor. On the other hand, the Code Duello frowned upon men of unequal social class settling their differences by dueling. If a gentleman was insulted by a person of lower class he would not duel him, but might proceed with a caning or cowhiding to humiliate his opponent. 

In other words, honor in the United States was not defined by what you thought of yourself, but solely by what other people thought of you. Honor was the same thing as social status, reputation, perceived power in the community… in a word, privilege.

If you didn’t have enough privilege relative to the person you were in conflict with, you didn’t have any honor to lose so you weren’t allowed to take offense at anything he said or did. On the other hand, if he got irritated by anything you said or did, he could beat you publicly with a stick or a whip.

If the two of you were roughly equal in status, you would resolve the issue through lethal combat. That hasn’t really changed – during the dueling era, the primary killers of aristocrats were other aristocrats and the primary killers of lower class people were other lower class people. In the modern United States, assaults and homicides usually occur among peers and very often over issues of respect and disrespect.

This has a lot of relevance to recent events – if you want to claim self-defense after a shooting, it helps to have higher social status than the person you shot. If you have lower social status or privilege, your actions probably won’t be interpreted as self-defense by police, prosecutors or juries. Every person has the same right to defend themselves from violent assault in the law as written, but not in the law as actually enforced. Just as in the dueling culture of the 19th century, violence is expected to be used on the same social level or downward – but never upward.

According to the Wodens Folk Kindred:

In the modern world, many laugh at honor as an outdated and unrealistic concept.

This may be true, but if honor is actually just a measure of how much privilege the community grants you – including the privilege to violently dominate those of lower status – then perhaps we shouldn’t be idealizing it in the first place. But is this what honor meant to our pagan and polytheist ancestors?

According to the late Alexei Kondratiev, all of the ancient Celtic words for honor refer to your reputation and perceived power, not your inner integrity:

The traditional Irish word that is usually translated as “honor” is ‘oineach’ … which originally means “face”… Thus the idea of honor is primarily related to one’s “face” which must be saved in the eyes of the community. A closely related concept, often mentioned in the same contexts, is that of ‘clú’ (“reputation” or “fame”), which comes from an Indo-European root meaning “to hear” and thus refers to what is being said about someone. To be honorable, then, is to maintain one’s “face” before the community and to be “heard of” in a good way. Dishonor comes from losing “face” and being “heard of” in a bad way. The term ‘enech’ also expresses the idea of personal power, since as long as one has “face” in the community one is able to influence others: thus people or things that are your responsibility or otherwise under your protection are described as being “on” or “under” your “face”. When you lose “face”, of course, you’re no longer able to extend the protection… What emerges from this is a sense of honor and dishonor being very much defined by the community, rather than the individually chosen codes of honor that are more characteristic of our modern way of thinking.

According to the book Honor by Frank Henderson Stewart, the ancient Norse concept of honor was originally defined by the mikilmenni or “Big Man” – a man with good ancestors, social influence, a dominant personality and wealth. In other words, privilege and the respect of the community, just as in other cultures. However, the Norse later developed a concept they called drengskappir which was based more on individual courage and integrity and less on community opinion or political power. Drengskappir was available not only to “Big Men” but to free people of all classes.

However, even though drengskappir was probably a lot closer to modern ideas of honor as a kind of inner integrity, it was still largely determined by community opinion. According to Hurstwic (a Viking historical research organization):

A man’s fame and honor in life, and his good name after death, were so important that a man was hypersensitive to the opinion of the community. He might not otherwise fear anything nor flinch at death, but the respect of the community was of paramount importance. Any offence in word or deed, or anything that might blot one’s honor had to be dealt with firmly in order to maintain that respect. So a Norseman was constantly on the alert for wrongs against his person or his name. Those wrongs were proclaimed openly, and then avenged. ψ

So, drengskappir was available to people from more than one social class, but it was still very much dependent on community opinion and the willingness of the person who claimed to have drengskappir to defend that claim by violent force. It is essentially a less classist equivalent of the later Code Duello, and just like the Code Duello it requires extreme sensitivity to insult as a precondition of any claim to honor.

This is where the whole issue of honor in a heathen or pagan context becomes ironic. The Conservative Pagan, Heathen and Traditionalist Webring, now defunct, described itself as placing “a high value on reason, honor and piety, and none on political correctness.”

Google defines political correctness as “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”

So, in effect the “Conservative Heathens” were saying that they had no intention of granting honor (the right to take offense) to those who were of lower social status (the “socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”) Just like the Code Duello, honor is only in effect between those of equal privilege – a person of lower status cannot take offense because they are perceived as having no honor to lose.

Conservatives often complain that people have become too sensitive to perceived insults. This may be true, but historically a “man of honor” was by definition a person who was hypersensitive to insult. Saying “he would not resent an insult” was a grave accusation of cowardice and would have resulted in a duel – in the Old South or in old Iceland.

Thus, for marginalized people to take offense at insults can be understood as an assertion that they too have honor or status, and to dismiss that as “political correctness” can be understood as an attempt to keep them “in their place.”

As modern heathens, pagans and polytheists, does this mean we should get rid of the concept of honor completely? I don’t think we can. If honor is simply your reputation and status in the community, then honor will always be with us in some form. There are aspects of the old honor codes that many pagans would still admire, such as the emphasis on being morally courageous and true to your word as a precondition for being honored by the community. But we create our own community, so we get to decide for ourselves what we want to honor and what we don’t.

The ancient Norse honored those who avenged insults with violence, but we don’t have to. We can choose to honor those who speak up when they are insulted even under the threat of violence from those with higher status and power. We can choose to honor those who honor everyone instead of only the members of their own privileged class.

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

32 thoughts on “Honor: “I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means”

  1. Yes…people often forget that Irish society, for starters, evaluated everyone based on their honor-price relative to their role in society and their status within the hierarchies of that role, amongst other things. In that heroic society, people were taught to be eager for praise and to confront insults, especially if those insults were not true, etc.

    I notice that when I’ve said to certain people, for example, that I wish they would make some effort to getting my pronouns correct, I’ve been told I’m “insecure” and that therefore that issue is on me rather than on them actually making any effort. Likewise, I’ve seen WAY too many people say, for example, that all of the People of Color at PantheaCon who took offense to the purported “satire” (which I put in quotation marks only because I take the older Irish definition of that as my guidepost rather than more modern definitions) newsletter are just too caught up in their own stuff and aren’t thinking clearly, etc., when in fact they had (and still have) every right to be offended by it. Examples could be endlessly multiplied, certainly, on how those who object to certain treatment or language then get told they’re somehow lacking for not being impervious to other people’s words or opinions (or even actions in some cases), when in fact the demands of honor are actually being satisfied by objecting and are being flaunted by those detracting from them.

    It’s a complex set of questions, and one I’m glad you’ve raised here. Thanks for writing this!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. You have carefully dissected a myth. Honour did not only have this external meaning in pre-industrial societies of European descent, it still does in many parts of Middle East, India etc. A man’s honour stretches out to his wives, his children, sisters and is frail and determined not by his own worth but among other things, by the purity of female relations (as it used to be in European societies). The majority of Pagans will not be tempted to re-embody this interpretation of virtue (at least I hope so).

    In medieval grail literature there are other, more inherent conceptions of honour to be found, but there is little historical fact to support that this kind of honour was a substantial reality in actual societies. We can however choose to endow the word honour with new meaning in our communities.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Like almost everything, honour is double-bladed. You are right (if a little over the top) in your accessment but as well as the side ‘my honour is so fragile and class-based’ there is another side. ‘What people think of you’ is not just a reflection of your status, but also a reflection of your worth to the community. To whom do people take their problems for advice? Who can adjucate between combatants and be accepted without argument? Who facilitates things getting done and funds projects in the kick-starter phase?

    Honour is indeed something external given to you by the community but it isn’t necessarily given by force and to privileged ass-hats.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I will need time to think about honor in this historical context. However, I continue to think that I — and most people I know — are hungry for honor, and external recognition. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean we can’t, as a community, decide to honor the best in humanity and to strive to earn that honor ourselves.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. and many of us are trying to define it positively, to be a concept that is more worthy, as it were, of the name.

      “Honor killings” are just murder by misguided male relatives of someone already a victim. Instead of trying to help a woman who’s been brutalised, they blame the victim instead of the perpetrator (because they’d have to take responsibility for their own wrong actions). Marrying a victim to her rapist or abuser never made sense to me–what surety does a woman have that, once married to the scum, that he would treat her well? None! Stop treating women like property, and thinking of abused or raped women as “soiled goods”, and take responsibility for the welfare of those supposedly under male care.

      The above behaviour also reminds me of the (mostly white “religious” conservatives) condemnation of women’s sexuality and unwanted pregnancies: the fetus, of however few cells there might be, is precious up until the time that it’s born, and then the child and the unwilling mother are just lowlife scum, undeserving of any assistance.

      Sightly tangential to the above: I’m not sure if California used to have a marital status field on birth certificates before Rep. Jackie Speier passed a bill to put that field on birth certificates in late 1996. She was astounded to find that ALL newborns’ mothers were counted as unmarried if their family name differed from the father’s. She found out that all such women were counted as unwed mothers likely to be on welfare roles. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/WHAT'S+IN+A+NAME%3f+LEGITIMACY.-a083961641 My son was born in 1994, so I guess I’m just a drag on the public dime, in spite of the fact that his father, my *husband* has been supporting us all this time, just because I never took his name. I was already spelling my own family name most of the time, and saw no reason to switch to a different one that would always have to be spelled out. I wonder how many married California mothers in the latter half of the 20th C. didn’t know they were considered deadbeats?

      I am an “honest” or “honourable” woman, thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve never been further west than Texas, but that doesn’t match up with the image I had of California.

        What I was trying to say was that, we often refrain from honoring someone because (I think) we’re afraid it makes us seem like ‘less’ in some way, if we’re going to exalt them. But, I intuit that the best way to redefine honor is to give it to the people who deserve it.


      2. WRT honor killings, I’m referring to those cultures (not based in California) that do this, Middle-east to Bangladesh, parts of Africa, and likely other areas I’m not remembering at this time. I am glad I was not born in any of them. It IS one of my priveleges.


      3. No, I get that. I’m just saying that you can’t let them define “honor” for you (or, for the world, for that matter).

        Looking at the worst that’s been done in the name of anything isn’t productive (I don’t think), instead we should be working towards doing what’s best, particularly with honor. I really don’t think the idea can be eradicated from human consciousness, but it can be directed. (I hope.)


      4. Wasn’t sure–thought you might have meant those behaviors in California.

        Seems we both feel the same way about the definition and shaping of what honor means and is, and in what direction it should be cultivated. The Navajo speak more of “harmony” or “beauty” in order to describe living “rightly”, than about honor, although I expect we and they have the same mental construct, no matter what we call it. BTW, the punctuation is to show use as terms they would use, not to deride.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. As I was reading this article, I was becoming more and more despondent about the concept of “honour” being defined, which does not match my internal definition. Was a Pagan/Heathen/Polytheist/indigenously spiritual person supposed to seek such a concept? I was quite relieved with the last paragraph, for here at last was a sign of my idea of what honor should be. Thank you!

    Thinking back on all those hotheads (and I do mean hotheads, not everyone) who are so worried about the least possibility of insult or disrespect (which I do not see as a verb), I often thought they were insecure, self-centered, kill-first/question-later, easily prone to violence idiots with an overblown sense of self-importance, away from whom I’d prefer to stay.

    There is an idea that one is responsible for how one’s communication is received. That might be true where no shoulder chips or non-consensual reality exists, but with someone intent on a victim role–and I am NOT talking about anyone here, as none of you strike me as living the victim role–and finding insults from simple misunderstandings. Often such a person “others” the speaker/writer, and works from within a scenario/agenda that warps anything said, so that a speaker or writer can never say anything right, nor get the original point across (assuming no malice aforethought) and remove the heat from the interaction. A flame war in real life, as it were. I’ve had a couple of former friends decide I’d deliberately maligned, insulted, or made fun of them. I’m courteously civil, but that’s it, anymore.

    Now when someone wishes to correct a speaker or writer about thon’s own name/gender/orientation/spirituality/self-definition, and thon are told thon is too sensitive, or tat there are more important things to worry about, I feel thon would be justified to mangle the speaker/writer’s self-description, and see how they like it. PSVL, I can’t take that person who did that two PCons ago, in a closed-door discussion, seriously at all anymore, as I feel that she’s too wrapped up in her own self-image to be able to see anyone else’s realities. I feel she has shed what honor I may have accorded her. I have similar feelings about some other folk often seen at PCons, including one I used to think quite highly of. I have a problem being near her for fear I would be tempted to argue with someone who I fear will never change her mind about Transfolk. Her loss, really–I have met some amazing transfolk.


    1. Yes, I think recognizing that we choose what to honor is a first crucial step toward honoring the right things, the thing we truly value, instead of treating honor as an abstract force compelling people to act in a certain way.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Forgot–For Brutus is an honorable man, so are they all, all honorable men. … The evil that men do lives after them.

    …until someone cleans up the mess and makes sure that evil messes will be seen less often.


  7. This is a concept that I have very real problems with – not what it actually is, but how it has been and continues to be used as an excuse for some people to belittle others. To mark themselves as “better”. Any bad behaviors, they blame on their honor. Maybe this is only my experience, and maybe it’s so much on my mind at the moment because of a recent experience where someone in an online group for a local group bullied a friend of mine (completely dismissed her heartfelt statement) and then when I called him on it, he blamed it on his “honor”. I pointed out that he had, in actuality, done much more to damage his honor – the way the community viewed him – by being a bully than he did good. He argued that his honor was a way of living that was appealing to his Gods, and at that point, many began to defend him. I was astonished, and deeply disgusted. I decided that if that was what gained him honor (as was evidenced by the people who came to his defense as a “great guy”) then I had no desire to be a part of that community.

    Too often things are allowed to pass because someone claims the blessing of their Gods to do those things. And in this case, the community did, indeed, award him honor for bullying, but only because they swallowed without gagging that it was “honorable” to bully someone new to Paganism that lacks the glittery shits of someone who knows the lingo. I really appreciate this article and hope that it will help some people realize that THEY are allowing people like that guy to define honor as being an elitist asshole.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. This is a wonderful discussion. It is important to remember the root relation between honor and honesty. I think it shows the original concept was the sacredness of truth. The myriad distortions over time can be traced back to Rome ( which was culturally dominant throughout the middle east and Northern Africa pre Islam. The cult of honor as it relates to women and virginity is based on the religious belief that a family’s entire good fortune was guarded and brought about by the dead male ancestors. If there was a false descendant in the line this would be a catastrophe and destroy the entire family. So the honor or honesty of chastity was paramount.


    1. I’m glad you’re enjoying the discussion! I don’t think the concept of honor as reputation or “face” can be traced to Rome, though- that’s pretty much the meaning of the term in every case I know, including those with no significant influence from the Romans.


  9. Reading this brought to mind a section of an essay I’d read years back about ‘young men’s gang brawling’ in rural Finland in an essay about alcohol and cultural emotions in Finland–which is a surprisingly fascinating read. The passage discusses honor and violence in the context of Ostrobothnian village culture:

    “…the ordering of the unofficial male hierarchy in the parish of Härmä was not dependent on socio-economic factors, but was organized instead on the basis of “honor”. In practice, this meant contests to determine who had the most courage in aggressive situations among males: “true Härmä honor meant that one feared nothing, ran away from no one, never asked for mercy even in situations of life and death”. The cult of honor, manifested in forms approaching the pathological, inspired men to compete over who was the most häjy: wild, mean, and ready for violence.
    This constant gauging of oneself against others was further encouraged by drink. Weddings, which demanded of men that they be ritually intoxicated, were highly suitable context for this sort of behavior. Candidates for challenges and witnesses to a man’s bid for honor were plentiful, as were the most desired prize: the admiration of young women. Verbal duels were just the warm-up; after this the participants got down to the main business at hand: fights involving wrestling or knives. The most exciting brawls were those involving gangs of young men fighting together: the challengers were the “wild ones” or häjys, and the challenged were the men who did not belong to their ranks…. The winner of these highly aggressive showdowns received as his reward a “reputation” which raised his value in the eyes of young women – and caused competing suitors to step aside. Having “honor” or a “reputation” could compensate for a lack of those socio-economic resources usually necessary for marriage…”


    1. Forgot to cite that quote: it’s from an essay by Satu Apo called ‘Alcohol and Cultural Emotions’ in a volume titled ‘Myth and Mentality: Studies in Folklore and Popular Thought’ edited by Anna-Leena Siikala.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I really like your emphasis on the word “honor” as a verb rather than as a noun. As Toby said above, “honor is something that we, as individuals, also give. Each time we give honor, we help to define what it is.”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Reblogged this on Siren Afire and commented:
    “We can choose to honor those who speak up when they are insulted even under the threat of violence from those with higher status and power. We can choose to honor those who honor everyone instead of only the members of their own privileged class.”


  12. I can’t really say that honor in terms of social prestige weighs much in my estimation. It may have once but in today’s society the general conditions for being socially privileged and holding social prestige seem to be directly at odds with moral courage, dignity and the strength of one’s word. That is the problem. If “face” was truly connected to courage, honesty and dignity, then I would accept face. But today when those who speak out against racist posts on Pagan forums are ridiculed by the clear majority, it loses that connection. In our current world, threatened with climate change and inter-ethnic, interracial and inter-faith violence, is what we nee really honor in the form of “face” or is it courage (the courage to take a risk and speak up for what you believe in), integrity (the lack of conflict between your professed earth-honoring values and your consumption and lifestyle) and interdependence (the ability to recognize the connection of your well-being to the well being of the community and environment and act accordingly)?


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