Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious and spiritual experiences, community interaction, general heathenry, and modern life on my heathen path, which is Asatru.

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Asatru FAQ: Hospitality

A question that comes up periodically in the heathen community is how to apply the virtue of hospitality in the modern world. Many heathens try too hard to make the square peg of ancient stories about kings fit into the round hole of an average modern city dweller's life.

The modern list of religious virtues called the Nine Noble Virtues that some heathen groups preach dates to the 1970s, but was based on historical literature. This literature was largely stories of interest to the patrons of poets, and those patrons were kings. In attempting to live how these stories say is an honorable way to live, many heathens are unintentionally trying to replicate a lifestyle that only applied to those at the very top of the social hierarchy in historical heathen times.

There was a custom called "guest-right" in which, in ancient times, travelers could show up somewhere and demand to be housed and fed. The heathen community has often said that guest-right was the right of guesting for 3 nights. I don't know where the 3 nights idea came from. "Guest-right" was an obligation in ancient times, but it applied to either the lord or the richest household in the community, if they did not happen to be the same person. That is, the person who was obligated to house travelers was the king, chieftan, jarl, etc.

"Guest-right" does not meet that some total stranger showing up on my doorstep should expect to be given a room here for 3 nights. A king or jarl of the Viking Age could welcome in a group of strange men with weapons because he had his own war band inside. A woman living alone or only with other women in a city of a million people is in no way the social equivalent of a Viking king. The wealthiest men in my metropolitan area have giant buildings specifically for the purpose of providing hospitality to travelers. These towers have these men's names on them in giant letters at the top: Wynn, Trump, etc. There is no reason to expect that if I turn someone away from my door that there would be no place for him to go and he would freeze to death before morning.

The reason "guest-right" existed in historical heathen society was because when a traveler arrived at a village, farmstead, etc., there might be no place else to go within a day's ride, and people turned away really would freeze to death. "Guest-right" was a practical obligation meant to save lives. These days, trying to practice that type of hospitality would risk more lives than it could save. "Guest-right" existed for practical reasons, and today practicality says travelers entering Las Vegas should expect to stay in a hotel, not in a random stranger's house.

"Guest-right" was not practiced in large cities even in historical times. Germanic mercenaries in Constantinople, Byzantium didn't go knocking on random doors demanding to be given beds. "Guest-right" was a rule for kings and the owners of isolated settlements.

You're not a bad heathen if you don't open your door to every random person who happens to come along. Unless you live in a ski hut at the top of Donner Summit, it's unlikely that you have the only life-saving shelter within a day's travel. Providing for strangers is the responsibility of the wealthy and powerful, who have room to spare, more than enough food for themselves and their household, and the security forces to ensure their own safety.

Now, if you are choosing to provide hospitality to someone because you want to-- because the person is your friend or relative or a visiting dance teacher your club is putting up, or whatever-- that's another question. In that case, try your best to see to the comfort of your guest. Not because you're trying to be the King of Heorot but because it delights you and your guest.

If you work in the hospitality industry, you're not putting guests up in your own house but are doing the work on behalf of the wealthy owners, which is also another thing entirely. In that case you have the property, money, staff, and security forces of the local equivalent of the jarl to draw on to do your job. You can exhibit the virtue of hospitality without putting your life or the lives of your spouse and children at risk.

Make your guests welcome with special thoughtful touches. Go all out if you can, but safety first. The heathen virtue of hospitality is often misunderstood. It exists to support the community and save lives, not to put them at unnecessary risk.

Image: drinking horn, photo by Erin Lale

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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners. An updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path, is coming in 2020 from Red Wheel / Weiser. Erin was sworn to Freya as Priestess in 1989, given to Sigyn, and is a Bride of Odin and his brothers (Honir, Lodhur, Loki.). She has been a freelance writer for about 30 years, was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, is gythia of American Celebration Kindred, and admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. In 2010 and 2013, she ran for public office. She is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press for 5 years, created the Heathen Calendar 2017 and 2018, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.
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