This material was first presented as a series of lectures in Estel Sidhevair beginning on Nov. 5, 2008. These lectures weregeared to online community members of the “Fantasy Archipelago” in the Old Virtual grid and in particular to the Elf Circle Guardians who include the ethics of the Nine Virtues in their training to act as mentors and first responders to online trouble for the approximately 1500 members of Elf Circle (EC). Please note that the material is also presented with a distinct mythopoeic approach, basically written by and for creatures of fantasy. The original lecture transcript has been modified for a more general audience.
While the Nine Noble Virtues are drawn from Norse religious perspectives, this introduction and the nine lectures which follow also draw from other ethical and religious constructs from around the world including Celtic, Hellenic, and East Indian perspectives.
The original lectures were presented online on Wednesday nights at 8 PM with some breaks for various holidays. They were facilitated by the direct avatar interactions made possible via digital worlds. The lectures were all presented in the main conference area of the community center (Enedh Gwaith) on the virtual island of Estel Sidhevair.In some cases there were guest speakers, where appropriate their remarks are included with the main lectures. Each lecture was followed by a discussion section. These talks at times lasted far into the night, sometimes growing rather heated.
The Elf Circle class on the 9 virtues describes Honor as the expression of self esteem by an individual involving the keeping of promises, the performance of duties, and the respect of other people’s value and possessions. This definition is followed in the class materials by a parenthetic comment that expands upon the idea of honor in terms of personal integrity. Integrity is defined as strong moral character or strength, and adherence to ethical principles.These definitions touch upon the outward and inward aspects of Honor.
I have mentioned in previous talks that the 9 Noble virtues entwine. Of all the 9 virtues, it is Honor which most encompasses the others. The Asatru orgins of the 9 Virtues describe Honor as emerging when one is true to oneself and when this truth inspires one to choose nobility in place of base actions. The Norse Sagas and the Eddas repeatedly emphasize the importance of Honor (and dishonor). Norse Honor is associated with reputation. Dishonorable people are discredited; they are viewed as less than nothing. They are seen as cursed for their dishonor forever.
On the other hand, those who have behaved with honor are elevated. Their actions are seen to shine down the ages and they are held up as examples to follow. This traditional focus upon reputation, however, is only part of the story. Honor can be described as the inward virtue, while reputation is the outward expression. These two aspects are so conflated in the minds of many cultures that it is almost impossible to part the dyad to view the components separately. Certainly, the revelation of honor draws upon the previous virtues of Courage and Truth.
Honor requires the courage to act upon the truth found within. With inner knowledge of the Truth informing our actions, we are able to live in accordance with our internal voices and we sense intuitively, emotionally, when our actions are ethical, moral, correct—honorable. Honor in its external manifestation as reputation is deeply enmeshed in ideas about “face”. The English word honor has its origin in the Latin word honoris, which refers to the social status that a person’s actions determine.
Honor in its aspect as an externally assigned quality is derived from a social assessment as to an individual’s honesty, their integrity, and their reputation as someone who is fair and deserving of respect. One’s ocial value is based upon adherence to concepts of honor as shared by the larger community. Another factor in a community’s assessment of an individual’s honor involves a perception of one’s loyalty, and at times one’s submission to the mores of the society.
“I will to my lord be true and faithful, and love all which he loves and shun all which he shuns.” — Anglo-Saxon oath
Failure to live up to these community concepts results in dishonor and a concomitant loss of face. Interestingly, the traditional Irish word that is closest to the English word for honor is ‘oineach’ from the Old Irish ‘enech’ which in turn was derived from the Old Celtic word ‘eniequos’ all of which translate as ‘face’. To the ancient Celt, honor and face were inextricably linked; one had to preserve face in one’s community’s view. A related word, ‘clú’ derives from the Irish word “to hear” and relates to what one hears about what is said about an individual. To be found honorable one must have been ‘seen as’ one of good face and ‘heard of’ in a positive manner. In the presence of the opposite of those two collectively ‘sensed’ determinations; when one had ‘lost face’ and was spoken of in a negative manner, dishonor ensued.
That which came “under one’s face” or that which one was responsible for protecting—was impacted by the larger community’s determination of one’s honor. The implication is clear that if one loses face, one can no longer extend one’s protection. This sense of honor resulted in the word ‘enech’ also referring to personal power.
Many Asian cultures share similar concepts of integrity and face, and the Polynesian ‘mana’ bears a strong resemblance to the Irish ‘enech’. The concepts of honor as related to reputation, face, fame, respect and privileges of rank can easily be seen to be less a consequence of internal honesty or ethics, but rather as a function of societal power. Some studies of society have examined how ethical behavior is ‘managed’ by the hunger individuals have to maintain their “good reputation”. These studies demonstrate how gossip and rumor can function as forms of societal control. When even a whisper goes out that a person is unreliable, “stretches” the truth, or is untrustworthy financially, there are repercussions—often resulting in severe and lasting impacts upon one’s social mobility. For these reasons, honor and the outward “reputation” can have not only social but also political and economic impacts.
Honor has traditionally been associated with chivalry, which is firmly planted in ideas about nobility. So, certain rights can be seen to derive from honorable actions, and these rights can be seen as more easily accessed by members of more affluent groups. In High Fantasy these themes are echoed over and over again. And yet, the conflict, resolution, and satisfaction in these tales often arises from the challenge to the ordinary social order—by what is frequently a double bind situation.
Consider the case of Robin Hood. In the face of injustice, this Noble becomes an outlaw and risks his reputation. Robin Hood therefore threatens at least one powerful part of his society’s assessment of his honor in order to stand by what he believes is his internal honor, his noble obligation to protect the people of his lands, and his duty to stand by his absent King. In the case of the love between Lancelot and Gwenivere—where honor and love conflict—tragedy ensues. Lancelot chose honoring “Romantic Love” (and the idealized feminine so important to chivalry) over fealty. In betraying his King, he and the future Queen sew the seeds for the fall of Camelot. As secularization increases, the significance of honor can be seen to decline.
At the same time, there is a persistent thread valuing the concept of honor and believing in its ongoing importance to society. This thread esteems courage, deplores cheating, “tattle-tales” and backstabbers, and regards reliability and faithfulness (even in support of a questionable cause) as favorable to scheming opportunism.
Classic archetypes persist and model these values for us. Such beloved heroes include Robin Hood, more recently Zorro, most Superheroes, and the ‘Gentleman Cowboy’ who protects the weak, is a man of his word, honors his obligations, can be counted on by his friends and colleagues, and refuses to tolerate bullies. There is a basic conflict between modern humans’ esteem of Honor and their daily behavior. Robert E. Howard, in the Tower of the Elephant writes:
“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”
In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis remarks: “We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
Shadow sides of Honor emerge from the conflicts between rationality and power, or impartiality and the subjective. When we examine the behavior associated with chivalry, we find a persistent feature that is also frequently connected with honor. This is the duel. Duels on the ‘face’ of things contrast with lawful approaches to social problem solving. This is obvious because one cannot really determine who should actually be believed or who should prevail in a dispute simply by considering who emerges as the stronger or more skillful warrior.
In Death in the Afternoon, (My favorite drink, btw: drop one jigger of the Green Fairy into a large glass of champagne—drink no more than two of these!) Ernest Hemingway (creator of the drink) wrote:
“Too much honor destroys a man quicker than too much of any other fine quality.”
Over the centuries, there has been an idealized focus upon external Honor as the underlying basis for one’s standard conduct. One’s honor, that of one’s family or one’s romantic interests, thus became central and encompassing concerns. These concerns required constant vigilance for anything that might threaten one’s honor. This vigilance easily resulted in “men of honor” who felt obligated to provoke duels for fear of otherwise seeming afraid of putting themselves to the test. It also underlies efforts to cleanse a perceived stain upon honor that can only be resolved through killing one’s wife or child, or friend, or by waging war.
Consider Helen of Troy here. Actions of this sort often relate to a gendered sense of honor which involves the governance of a woman’s sexuality— or her chastity. This form of honor specifically has applied to a married woman’s exclusive monogamy—fidelity, and the maintenance and control of an unattached woman’s virginity. In fact, the control of women’s sexuality as it relates to honor has resulted in some cultures justifying the preservation of family honor through honor killings. This is the murder of those family members who are perceived to have cost the family face through what might even be only the appearance or rumor of an independent choice of a sexual partner. This honor can even call for death when a female family member has been raped (or might have been).
Turning to the battlefield, Honor remains a highly prized virtue in military institutions. Here again we see the strong links between Truth, Integrity and Honor as determined by reputation. The connection between chivalry, honor and the martial spirit is ancient and powerful. The soldier must be a person of integrity and honesty. It is essential in battle to be able to trust one’s comrades and one’s officer’s assessments about the situation, and to know that each neighboring soldier will trust one’s own statements. It is equally imperative to know that fellow soldiers will not lie under stress. Honor becomes a matter of life and death.
Truth as it relates to honor also arises as an issue in modern human economies or “business”. Long ago, Sophocles wrote: “Rather fail with honor than succeed by fraud.”
Despite this ancient value, there is growing mistrust of the “captains of industry”. This mistrust is nothing new. In class struggle, business magnates are often viewed as frauds who protest their honor and good intentions while engaging in highly questionable business ventures. This results from the identification of such strategies as “greenwashing”, as well as the promotion of corporate generosity to assert the high ground in a pretence of munificent quasi-feudal paternalism. Regardless of conscious intent, this type of activity mimics medieval and Renaissance Western cultures. In those earlier economies, mercantilism and chivalry became inter-woven. This enmeshment encouraged the rise of merchant princes who were able to interact with the nobility on increasingly equal terms due to a similarity in values. This assumption of the mantle of quasi-nobility however, provokes mistrust in the commoners.
Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” There is a pervasive hunger for fair treatment which underlies many efforts to equalize the playing field in a game that is perceived as under the control of ruthless and entitled elite. These elite are seen as benefitting from double dealing—profiting from the law while simultaneously breaking it, claiming honor while behaving shamefully. This results in struggles for equalization to ensure that the “Noble” can not overpower the “commoner” by force majeure.
From a young child to the very pinnacles of society, the desire to be rewarded and honored for excellence is a powerful motivation. At the same time, there is the equally potent incentive that springs from integrity of character. In our attitudes towards honor lie profound pools of emotional lucidity. On the other hand, a reputation for dishonorable behavior suggests deep inconsistencies in one’s psyche.
We look to our heroes to shine a light upon these deep internal insights and guide us. It is here that honor and fantasy cross paths. It is here that we creatures of fantasy can bring honor into our second lives (and the OutWorld). Our roots, like the roots of Honor, reside in fantasy, in myth, and in the Faerytale romance of the open minded child. We can, as we may have learned in the recent “Knight’s Tale”, “change our stars.”
As Johan Huizinga remarked:
“Honorable excellence, when attained, made easier the kind of self-esteem described by the fifteenth-century soldier-author who affirmed that ‘whoever achieves distinction in arms is thereby ennobled, whatever his rank may be.’ The greatest king may combat the poorest knight, for the armor itself is of such nobility that when the knight has put the helmet on his head he is the equal of anyone in the world.”
Strength and Honor emerge from the magical armor of romance, fantasy and the imaginative heart of the child. If we seek guidance from our honorable forebears and archetypes, whether they are preserved in history or lauded in fantasy, we too can “change our stars” and keep the light of Honor lit. As Alfred de Vigny remarked in Servitude et Grandeur Militaires: “... Honour ... remains awake in us like a last lamp in a temple that has been laid to waste.”
The 9 Virtues
The third virtue
About the Original Lecture Series
Please read the about the virtue of Honor below and then follow the links in this section to read about the other virtues that comprise the Nine Noble Virtues.
The Nine Noble Virtues are Courage, Truth, Honor, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Industriousness, Self-Reliance, and Perseverance.
The 9 Virtues lecture series was presented originally by the Faelf who comprise the members and avatars of Westernesste and the Sidhevairs. The Sidhevairs are a non-profit arts and educational association which share a group tax exemption under 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code as a chartered coordinating subordinate organization of Westernesste. Donations to us are tax deductible. You can learn learn more about our parent organization by visiting the Westernesste site. You can learn more about the organization of The Sidhevairs, see our EIN letter, our DUNS information, our charter, and our articles of association by clicking here.