Friday, January 09, 2009

Are Social Customs Divinely Sanctioned?

There is a recent trend amongst reconstructionists to deny that there was any such thing as a heathen "religion", stating instead that there were only "social customs", and thus any reconstruction must attempt to reconstruct those social customs. There is some value to this conceit, as with all models, but like any model, it leaves out much of reality.

The fact of the matter is that there were religious social customs that are differentiable from other social customs ; otherwise, there would be no need for specialized terms like blot and sumble. There would be no need for specialized architecture like a hof or horg.

Additionally, we find only a few areas where the Gods are specifically concerned with human customs. They definitely show concern for violation of ve's or sacred areas, whether those be groves, temples, or altars. This indicates an especial concern with the religious realm. They concern themselves with murders or secret killings. We know that those who did not publicly announce a killing immediately were considered to gain the Gods' wrath. They are concerned with the integrity of oaths and the damage that perjury does to social faith and credit. They are concerned that love relationships not be violated by others.

Other than that, with perhaps a few more exceptions, the Gods are not spoken of as being specifically concerned with social customs. This should be telling. It indicates that the Gods left human beings alone to evolve their own social customs. It definitely suggests that not all social customs were divinely decreed or sanctioned. Those customs not specifically regulated by the Gods through religious law were considered to be human -- and perhaps human, all-too-human -- customs.

This is important, because one of the insinuations of some of our reconstructionists has been that because there is supposedly "no such thing as religion", all social custom is equally holy, and that spirituality and the social order are absolutely inextricable, which would give some sort of divine sanction on social customs.

But this would be an absurd proposition. Not that it hasn't been made before in many societies. But I can find little such indications in the North. There people adhered to customs because they were seen as a patrimony from the ancestors. The sanction was ancestral and not divine (except in the obvious cases of religious ceremony and law, which relate to the divine, yet whose specific customs came down through the ancient patriarchs).

Besides, any diachronic anthropology has to acknowledge that customs change with the times (however subtly), and thus are always evolving.

Who would want to restore the social order of 10th century Norway or Iceland? In its entirety? Are you kidding me? Certainly there are are case studies well worth learning from, and institutions that at least in part might be worth adapting, but is anyone suggesting that we outlaw people for writing love poems about someone to whom they are not engaged? How about customs where there is no dating as we know it -- because premarital sexual activity might offend the honor of the other family -- but only a quick engagement made by the families followed by marriage? How about a situation where women don't, and most often can't, appear in court? We could go on and on and on delineating customs that we have greatly and remarkably improved upon in the modern world, and only the most fierce reactionary would want to turn back the clock to such backwardness.

The Gods don't sanction such nonsense. They know that human beings are forever in a state of flux regarding their relations and relative progress in enlightenment. Their hope is that by bringing the people in a community together regularly for peaceful feasts dedicated to the Holy Powers, that over time, relations will end up evolving into a peaceful state, inspired into enlightenment by the examples and inspiration of the Gods themselves, with whom the folk commune at these special times. The ceremonies, in other words, constitute a form of evolutionary-scale university, where poets, priests, and prophetesses over time glean the wisdom of the Gods and apply such wisdom to the quest for enlightenment.

It's always dangerous when people try to attribute divine sanction to social customs, because it deifies the customs and makes them seem holier than they really ought to be. Social customs represent habits developed amongst people as compromises between various social forces. As those social forces shift, it's absurd to think that social customs ought to stay exactly the same. Certainly we might propose a certain conservatism when it comes to social customs, taking the long perspective on human society, but this conservatism is served by ancestral sanction, not by divine sanction.

Besides, young men were encouraged to study the customs of other peoples and to learn from them, bringing back the good and leaving aside the ill. "[R]annsakat siðu manna sem þér sýnisk ; ok mun vandliga alla þá er þú ser, hvárt sem eru góðir eða illir. Mun illa siðu til viðsýndar, en alla góða siðu til nytja sjálfum þér ok öllum þeim, er af þér vilja nema." (Rudolph Keyster, Peter Munch, C.R. Unger, eds., Speculum Regale, Konungs-Skuggsjá, Konge-Speilet, Carl C. Werner & Comp., Christiania, 1848, p. 9, Chapter 4, "Father".) "Thoroughly search the customs of men in their homes as is seemly to thou ; and remember carefully all that you see, whether it be good or ill. Remember to watch against ill customs, but enjoy and use all good customs for thyself and all of those who want to learn from thee." Rettarbot, or "bettering one's sense of justice or rights" was an incorporated practice at thing. The ancestors always had to be given their due, but a strong heathen pragmatism did not ignore the existing social forces with which people had to contend. Here the words of Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, may readily amplify the spirit behind rettarbot : "A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the Constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve. The two principles of conservation and correction... regenerated the deficient part of the old Constitution through the parts which were not impaired...", going on to say later that "in what we improve we are never wholly new, in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete." (Reflections on the Revolution in France.) Burke also says that this model of conservation and correction "leaves acquisition free ; but it secures what it acquires. Whatever advantages are obtained by a state proceeding on these maxims are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement...". But this indicates that it is the advantages, and not the abuses, which are to be retained. Improvements are built upon previous advantages, in a continuous evolution and gradual reformation.

Konungs-Skuggsjá suggests that the King and his court of nobles (the jarls or goðar) ought to be the exemplars of good customs from which the entire nation ought to learn, just as later Edmund Burke would write to the Duke of Richmond, "You people of great families and hereditary trusts and fortunes ... if you are what you ought to be, are in my eye the great oaks that shade a country, and perpetuate your benefits from generation to generation ... if [your] conduct and example hand down [your] principles to [your] successors, then [your] houses become the public repositories and offices of record for the constitution ... not ... where it is searched for and sometimes in vain, in rotten parchments ... but in full vigour, and acting with vital energy and power, in the character of the leading men and natural interests of the country." Konungs-Skuggsjá puts it this way: "... [U]m konunga siðu ...enda er hann hæstr at nafni, ok á hann at fylgja fegrstum siðum, ok hans hirð ok allir aðrir hans þjónustumenn, at allar þjóðir taki af theim góð dœmi til ráðvendi ok góðrar meðferðar ok allra annara hœveskra siða. Enda á konungrinn hverr sem einn ... líta fyrst á sjálfs síns siðu, ok því næst allra annara þeirra, er undir hánum eru ; sœma alla þá, er góða siðu hafa, en temja þá til góðra siða með aga, er eigi megu ógnarlaust numit fá ." (Keyster, Munch, and Unger, Konungs-Skuggsjá, pp. 2- 3, Chapter 1.) "...About the customs of kings ... of course when he holds the highest title, he should follow the fairest (most beautiful, most pleasant, most morally pure and unblemished) customs, as well as his court and all of his other serving-men, that the entire country will regard them as good models and precedents of honesty, good conduct, and all other courteous and most appropriate habits. And of course every king should ... look first at his own habits, and then next all the other men who are under him, honoring all of those who have good customs, and taming with threats those few who will not take possession of good customs without threat."

Rigsthula 43 tells us that Konr, the first king, kunni rúnar, ævinrúnar ok aldrrúnar, "knew runes, runes of eternity and runes of earthly generations". He was able to contend with his father Jarl in runic knowledge and beat him (Rigsthula 45 : Hann við Ríg jarl rúnar deilði,... ok betr kunni, "He with Rig Jarl runes contested ... and understood them better"), yet Jarl himself was taught runes by Rig-Heimdall (Rigsthula 36 : Rígr gangandi, rúnar kendi, sitt gaf heiti, son kvesk eiga, "Rig coming, taught him runes, gave him his own name, declared him his own son"). So clearly at least the quintessential king had learned the secrets of eternity and earthly life from a lineage that stems from the Gods, through Heimdall. "Secrets of eternity" and "secrets of earthly life" must refer in some way at least to trúar, religion, and góða siðu, good customs. But not all of these were acquired through his father's God-taught runes, because otherwise Konr would not have been able to contend with him and win. Rather, Konr builds upon the foundation of secret knowledge that his father taught him, and gains new insights. He improves upon the ancestral knowledge through his devotion to understanding, kunni.

As the king improves his insight, being surrounded by wise men, prophetesses, and goðar, he takes on fegr siðum, "finer customs", which become dœmi, examples, models for everyone else in the kingdom. The king may also issue mála, proclamations about fegr siðum, "improved conduct". These have great prestige, because of the king's knowledge of rúnar, but they are not, strictly speaking, binding either.

Thus there were conventions for customs to be improved and renewed, and these conventions had ancestral sanction and some grounding in the religion itself, but strictly speaking, customs, differing from people to people, are human, and not divine, affairs, and like all other things, they slowly transform as wyrd turns.

all translations copyright 2009 by Siegfried Goodfellow


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