From a Certain Point of View...

Odin is a Thief and a Deceiver. Tyr is an Oathbreaker. I'm okay with that. Not exactly qualities to aspire to, though. Something that many Polytheists struggle with is the fallibility, the errors, or even the outright terrible behavior attributed to the Gods and Goddesses in the Lore.

Lacking the certitude of an "all-good" monotheist worldview, the myths and stories we have from pre-Christian times don't always seem like the noblest of deeds. There's a host of examples that can counter that narrative of "all-good", but on the whole, most monotheists still count their Deity as lacking character flaws. A debate on that is a different post for a different blog. This here blog is Polytheist Territory, and I'd much rather talk about Them, thank you very much.
I can't promise this power isn't going to my head.

Yes, the title of this post is the classic Star Wars reference, where a deception was created (retroactively, because we know how you work, George!) in order to achieve a goal. In Obi-Wan's case, the goal was to recruit Luke into the fight against Vader and the Emperor, without cluttering up his young, idealistic worldview with complicated morality conundrums. From a certain point of view, truth can seem malleable.

There's a couple verses in the Hávamál that are probably the most-quoted from the text:

76-77 "Cattle die, Kinsmen die,
the self must also die;
but the glory of reputation never dies,
for the man who can get himself a good one.

Cattle die, Kinsmen die,
the self must also die;
I know one thing which never dies:
the reputation of each dead man."
Translation by Carolyne Larrington - The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)

A nice sentiment. A pragmatic recognition of mortality (one would expect nothing less from a religion that "ends" in the death of Gods) coupled with a reiteration that deeds and reputation live on beyond a life. It's commonly modernized into "That which is remembered, lives." There's a wrinkle in these two verses that I feel doesn't get a lot of attention. In 76, it's pointed out that the glory of a good reputation never dies, the idea here being to encourage the reader/listener to get one, to ensure their own legacy. In 77, however, it's just "the reputation of each dead man." Good or bad, you will be remembered for what you've done. All of this rambling was to lead to a question that I've often pondered, but have yet to reach a satisfactory conclusion:

Is it better to be remembered for doing harm, having actually done good, or be remembered for doing good, having actually done harm?

How I'm picturing y'alls reaction right now.

Remember, I'm writing from the Heathen perspective here. Reputation is very important. "We are our deeds" are not just pretty words, but there is an implicit follow-up that many take for granted when using that phrase. It's implied that our deeds will be interpreted as we intend, and assumptions are never wise.

The most famous betrayal for a greater good involves Tyr and Fenrir. The Gods had come to fear the growing strength of the giant wolf, and needed to imprison Him to prevent Ragnarok. They commissioned an unbreakable thread and claimed they wanted to test His prodigious strength. They also claimed They would untie him if he were unable to free Himself from it. The Wolf mistrusted Their magical thread so He demanded someone place a hand in His jaws as promise that They would unbind him. Tyr swore they would, placed his hand in the Wolf's mouth, and promptly lost His hand when the great beast was left imprisoned, breaking the Oath to untie him.

The story that prompted my opening statement has to do with the origin of the Mead of Poetry. To really, really shorten the story, it goes like this:

After the war between the Aesir and Vanir was settled, both sides combined their spit in a special container, and from this vessel a being emerged, called Kvasir. This being was the embodiment of wisdom and knowledge, for there was no question He could not answer. However, He was killed by two dwarves, who drained his blood, mixed it with honey, and thus the Mead of Poetry was created. It was said that those who drank of it would have the gift of knowledge and wisdom necessary to compose poetry (a very difficult thing in historical context). The Mead eventually ended up in the hands of the giant Suttungr, who hid the entirety of it away in a place called Hnitbjörg with his daughter, Gunnlöð, guarding it. Odin found out where Hnitbjörg was, snuck inside disguised as a field worker named Bolverk, and wooed Gunnlöð for three nights. This "earned" him the right to three "sips" of mead. His three "sips" ended up draining all of the Mead of Poetry (of course), then he promptly transformed into an eagle and flew back to Asgard, returning with the Mead to grant it's powers to both the Gods and Man.
From our perspective, this is a good thing, despite the ignoble actions. Odin stole the Mead, he deceived Gunnlöð. For a greater good. However, we see public admonishment for these actions in the Hávamál, where we also see Odin admits to his deceit and poor treatment of Gunnlöð :

108 - 110
"I am in doubt as to whether I would have come
back from the giants' courts,
if I had not used Gunnlod, that good woman,
and put my arms about her.

The next day the frost-giants went
to ask for [Odin's] advice, in the High One's hall;
they asked about Bolverk: whether he was amongst the gods,
or whether Suttung has slaughtered him.

I think Odin will have sworn a sacred ring-oath,
how can his pledge be trusted?
He left Suttung defrauded of the drink
and made Gunnlod weep."
Translation by Carolyne Larrington - The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)

Dramatic re-enactment.

All joking aside, breaking a ring-oath is serious business. Oathbreakers got outlawed, which in old times, basically meant laws no longer applied to you. Anyone could rob, beat, and/or murder you without consequence. Oathbreakers ended up (in some interpretations) in an afterlife where Níðhǫggr or other serpents chew on their corpses. Yet here is the Allfather, admitting to breaking a sacred oath, and publicly called on it, his word questioned. Questioned by those who admittedly aren't his friends, but a reputation is a reputation.

A modern example of this dilemma is found at the end of The Dark Knight, where Batman takes the fall for Harvey Dent's murder spree in order for the city to 'heal.' He's done good deeds, but his reputation as a whole will remain as a criminal. It's only when he's granted a shot at redemption in the final film of the trilogy that we see his continued good deeds turn the tide of his reputation. What if the events of the third film never happened? From a Heathen perspective, his reputation is in tatters, but his deeds were good. What would define him?
The scowl, probably.

How to reconcile the ignoble behavior of the Gods with the morals and ideologies shaping the modern world today? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. There's interpretations a-plenty, a classic being that we're not supposed to emulate the Gods, and they only serve as cautionary tales. Another is the annoying (but no less valid) double-standard that the Gods are free to do lots of things because they're Gods, and thus they have a different set of rules that they follow.

Both of those feel too trite for me. Odin and Tyr (and Batman) did the best they could with the information and resources they had. They made choices, for the greater good, but all of it could have ended badly. In the end, I think the lesson to be learned is that deeds will be interpreted differently by different people. For mortals and the Gods, Odin's theft of the Mead was very much a Good Thing, while for the giants and Odin's reputation among them, it was assuredly not. For mortals and the Gods, Tyr's oathbreaking to Fenrir was absolutely a boon for the Nine Worlds, but I doubt the Wolf would agree it was "good."

We can look at our actions, our choices, and apply a simple rubric: Would the Gods be happy with our actions? Our kindred? Are we? Living with the consequences is something that can absolutely be taken from the stories and mythos. Odin didn't try to trick the giants again, but admitted his fault and lived with their curses and anger. Tyr didn't regrow the lost hand, it remains severed as payment for his deed. There's honor in admitting "Well, that was a fuck up." That is unequivocally something worth emulating. To show that our Gods can commit (according to a certain point of view) outright wrongs, and still do good? That's an ethos much more relatable than the infallibility of current monotheist understanding.

It's important to never act from willful ignorance. Know the facts, know as much as you can about the situation and what impacts your deeds may have. None of us can be Kvasir, knowing answers to all questions, so we have to do the best we can. All we can do is what we firmly believe is right, and let the chips fall where they may. That might mean we're injured, or maligned by those we wrong. It might mean we're praised by those we aid. It's possible that both will happen at the same time. Reputations are a tricky thing, the Nine Worlds are a complicated place, and there are no easy answers.


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