Posted by: justblade | May 18, 2009

Heathen Syllogism

The Northern European Gods and Goddesses were worshipped by Vikings.
The Vikings were warriors.
Therefore, Heathenry is a warrior religion.

This syllogism gets trotted out in enough different places to be worth a bit of exploration. The concept of Heathenry as a ‘warrior religion’ is fairly frequently cited in Heathen as well as wider discourses. It is also a flawed proposition.

Why?

The same course of logic – syllogism – can be used to demonstrate that a cat and a table are both dogs, i.e. Dogs have four legs. Cats and tables have four legs. Therefore, cats and tables are dogs. It uses inference to determine a fact about a proposition from premise statements made by two other propositions. It is a type of formal argument that often elicits truthful statements, such as ‘All mortals will die, Socrates is a mortal therefore Socrates will die’ however can also fail spectacularly, as with the previous example.

The point at which syllogisms seem to fall down is often connected with propositions that are too simplistic to provide useful inference. The statement about the nature of dogs doesn’t take into account that other things may have four legs and that dogs are characterised by more than their four-leggedness. Variations on the syllogism using particular statements rather than universal statements can yield less absurd inferences, however both the premises still require sufficient specificity and complexity to make a sensible inference.

The problem with proposing Heathenry as a ‘warrior religion’ requires overlooking some significant characteristics of both historical and modern Heathenry, and by extension of the Vikings. Popular culture has created the modern figure of the Viking as a kind of heroic ‘work hard, fight hard, play hard, drink hard’ caricature (horned helmet optional). Some popular imaginings of historical Heathens depict the whole community of Northern European cultures as resembling this figure – women, men and children. I suspect this has been aided and abetted in modern readings of Roman accounts of the behaviour of the Germanic tribes they encountered as Rome endeavoured to conquer lands further into Northern Europe. The image of the warrior, either as carousing Viking or noble hero, presents an exciting figure for many to attach aspirations and seek to emulate. The warrior figure is one around which one can build many fireside and feast stories, while the ‘everyday life’ stories are frequently not recorded or remembered. The quest to categorise in this manner could also be seen to be influenced by writers outside of Heathenry giving a thumbnail sketch to a foreign audience, either Roman or scholars in the history of religions.

The question to ask then, is how accurate are the premises which are used as support for the inference that Heathenry is a warrior religion? It would be fair to say that some of the Vikings did indeed worship the Heathen Gods and Goddesses. It would also be fair to say that the Heathen Gods and Goddesses were also worshipped by Northern European peoples who were not Vikings, even among those contemporary with the Vikings. The historical record includes information that many Vikings had converted to Christianity, or as Kjartan is described in Laxdaela Saga prior to his conversion that he “feels more confidence in his own strength and weapons than he does in Thor and Odin.” 1 Something that is also worth keeping in mind is that what we have in the preserved historical information, literary and archeological, is, by its nature, partial. There are tantalising hints of other aspects of both the wider Northern European cultures and of the ritual life of these communities. One crucial aspect of many subsistence and agricultural communities is fertility and there are whispers of information about the beliefs and rites concerning these, however the sparsity of them attests to the disapproval these would have met among Christian historians.

Clearly, the warrior role model is personally important to a significant number of Heathens, and if this leads them to be honourable human beings then this is worth acknowledging. This seems to coincide with a proportion of Heathens who are current or former military personnel. Just as legitimately, there are followers of other religions that identify with the ‘warrior’ role model, even the apparently unlikely Salvation Army within the Christian faith. The difficulty arises when this role model is proposed as the only role model in Heathenry or somehow definitive of Heathenry as a whole and ignoring other options for Heathen paths or role models. Some propose the argument that there are many possible ways of being a warrior and that other people are not the only things that Heathens might fight – things that could include fighting injustice, against disease, for human rights and so on. This can certainly be a useful reframe of the general human endeavour to work for change, particularly because anger can be a great motivator. What it does not do is disrupt the role of violence in our cultures and the destructive effects that war and fighting mostly produce. Some may also see the implication that being a warrior is the only way to be authentically and fully Heathen, the breadth and depth of the human experience reduced to only one social role.

There are arguably just as many Heathens, historical and modern, who do not feel an affinity with a warrior role or for whom warrior imagery does not feature in the way they relate to the Gods, Goddesses and wights or in their experience of Heathen community. The ‘band of sworn brothers-in-arms’ is only one type of human social relation spoken of in the lore. The values of Heathenry frequently cited as ‘warrior values’ of a ‘warrior religion’ such as honour, courage, duty and virtue, are human values and are not restricted to a particular social role. Heathens, as do all people, have the opportunity to live by their values in every aspect of their lives. To idealise one particular sphere of human action sells us all short.

Some Heathens are healers.
Some Heathens are community builders.
Some Heathens raise children.
Some Heathens are producers.
Some Heathens are traders.
Some Heathens are Godmen and women.
Some Heathens are deciders of justice.
Some Heathens are warders.
Some Heathens are leaders.
Some Heathens are …

Heathenry … is a religion.

1 Laxdaela Saga (trans Magnusson & Palsson) p. 148

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Responses

  1. I could just hug you. Do you do hugs? 🙂

    • Welcome! I don’t often do hugs in person with people I’ve not met, but thank you and I appreciate the sentiment!! 😀

  2. If all heathens are warriors, then who is cooking dinner? 😛

    • Begs the question whether the Viking dinner is so cowed into submission that it cooks itself?? 😛

  3. This.

    Personally, the concept of Heathenry = warrior religion is one that has been bothering me for a long time. My other half is a martial artist and a Heathen and does see precedence for a warrior *path* within Heathenry but he agrees that Heathenry is not in and of itself a warrior religion. There’s room for all types of people in Heathenry… just as there is in any religion.

    And yes, it is a religion. Thank you for pointing that out. Like any religion it should influence a daily person’s life, but it is, in this day and age, a religion first and foremost.

    Thank you a thousand times over for this post, you said it much more eloquently than I could have.

    -Siggy

    • I have read a comment on another forum that has me pondering an addendum, so I’ll mention it here! The point is that most (if not all) cultures have warriors and the warrior ‘path’ is influenced by the general culture around them … not the other way around as is implied by the suggestion that Heathenry is a warrior religion. Carts before horses or getting the major and minor premises mixed up.

      Glad you liked, and thanks.

  4. An excellent piece of writing, something every heathen ought to read. Have you considered submitting this to a journal such as Idunna or another place of publication? Your piece speaks to a large audience and should be read by such.

  5. I’m probably one of the ones thought guilty of occasionally (frequently) implying that Heathenism is a warrior religion, so it might surprise a few people to know that I agree with the sentiments expressed here wholeheartedly.

    Heathenism is certainly not a pacifistic religion, but not all Heathens can or should be warriors. Germanic societies were and are just as multi-functional as other Indo-European societies and there should be no shame whatsoever in accepting your own social function as something other than warrior-hood.

    And just as an aside, the “peaceful warrior” types really tick me off. There’s a definite glamour attached to being a warrior, but there’s a terribly dark and ugly downside as well. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    • Hey Clint,

      Thanks for your comment! The warrior role is something that evidently appeals to many people, and I think it would be silly to try and argue that it isn’t there or has no prominence. I continue to be reminded (and think I have another essay coming) of a quote I read once – “there’s nothing wrong with being partial. The wrongness comes when the partial parades as the whole.” There is certainly a challenge for some in the modern revival to give worth to the whole range of social roles and not just privilege one particular one and give it so much explanatory power.

  6. Hey, awesome!!! Breath of fresh air. Thank the gods that some heathens are … logicians!

    Hex magazine might be interested in printing this, you should contact ’em…

    😉

    Henry

    • I might consider a revised version for publication … who’d be a good contact then? 😉

  7. Hallelujah! Some sense and light dawn upon the horizon! I feel like I am beginning to wake up from a long nightmare written by Kafka and Ionesco. Can we take off the weird hats now? We were all growling like we were all berzerkers because we … well, we thought everyone else was a berzerker, and if we showed we weren’t, we were afraid we’d get lynched! Yet a God of Wisdom is not averse to us using logic, even if his syllogisms sometimes melt like Dali’s clocks. It’s true, the Gods created this grey matter for something other than making us baboons with guns (or swords). If you think it’s terrifying to contemplate monkeys with swords, imagine how the Gods felt! Frigg : (swooning) “Now they’re saying we approve of all this!” Odin : “Now, now, dear, they’ll grow out of it soon enough.” Loki : (lurking in the corner) “Oh, yah? We’ll see about that.” Gullveig : “I know how to dress the whole thing up to seem glorious, meanwhile all they want is the neighbor’s gold/oil/whatever.”

  8. […] I’ve been dragging my heels on writing this entry. I was going to write about aggression but this post said most of what I was going to inarticulately complain about and I also realized that ‘Does […]


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