A recent discussion on Viking ethics established that, yes, contrary to popular historical representation, they did have some. Quite a complex arrangement of them, actually: it was considered important not to drink so much at a party that you fell over, and to make sure that a traveller arriving at your home had space near the fire so that he could warm his knees.
Now on the other hand, these were people who had no particular qualms about indulging in the odd spot of looting, pillaging, ravaging and slaughtering when the mood took them; and this was their approach to people they had no particular beef with. One can only speculate – from a safe distance, if you’ll take my advice – on how they treated people they actively didn’t like.
It’s fair to say, then, that the Norse sense of ethics was somewhat different to our own – but this is hardly unreasonable. Morality is one of the big problems for philosophies and religions the world over: where does the human sense of morality come from, and why can it be so strong and inflexible over the scale of a single lifetime, yet have been so bendy and unpredictable over the course of human history?
The question that cropped up during the discussion was a little more specific: did the Vikings (and by extension, should a modern Ásatrú) forgive?
Forgiveness is a concept of critical importance to monotheists, and one of the central foundations of Christianity: Christ is the mechanism through which God forgives human sinfulness. Christians are encouraged, before almost everything else, to be forgiving – and modern British society, having its social and ethical roots firmly embedded in Christian tradition and philosophy, views the ability to forgive as a thing of great merit.
But what actually is forgiveness? And is it relevant to those of us who aren’t Christian – and if so, why?
The simplest definition of forgiveness would be a willingness, after some affront, to behave as though no wrong had been done. To put the offence from your mind and treat the transgressor just as you did before. Most people pair ‘forgive’ and ‘forget’ and treat them as a single process: you do me wrong, but I forgive you, and I’ll do all I can to erase the whole incident from my memory.
But is forgiveness possible if we don’t or can’t forget? Is it still forgiveness if we remember the wrong done to us, even if we can bring ourselves to behave as though it’s ‘water under the bridge’? Is it still forgiveness if it’s offered grudgingly, or if it’s not heartfelt? And can forgiveness be conditional? If I forgive you, but on the understanding that it’d better not happen again? Or should forgiveness be assumed to depend on the true repentance of the forgiven, with further offences undermining the whole thing? What about philosophies that hold to some notion of natural retribution, such as karma or the Threefold Law? Does my forgiveness of your offence affect the retribution that nature would otherwise have brought on you?
As far as I can establish, Viking forgiveness carried just this expectation: I’ll forgive you, even treat you as though it never happened, but I won’t forget, and you won’t find me so merciful if you do it again.
But that’s one path, one philosophy, and one interpretation of that philosophy. The Ásatrúar might still tell me I’ve got it all wrong – and by Harry, they might be right. So what do you think, dear reader? What’re your thoughts on the nature of forgiveness, as it pertains to the different pagan paths?