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

johannnes-flintoe-egill-skallagrc3admsson-engaging-in-holmgang-with-berg-c3b6nundr
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/.