Note: This is a reprint from my website, The Rational Heathen, and is actually part of a two part post. However, this post can be considered standalone for the sake of context. I’ve added some from the second post to fill it out.
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:
- 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. Some folks might consider this a simplistic view, but our ancestors did have an understanding of right and wrong. Let’s look closer at good and evil, how it relates to the Ethics of Reciprocity.
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? The Ethics of Reciprocity, for lack of a better term, is we treat other people the way we want to be treated. 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.