An opinion piece – by Jack Wolf
Very often, when a person begins exploring the world of Paganism, and especially when one explores the northern traditions – or attends any of the larger Heathen gatherings they may hear of the term ‘boasting’. They may even see it in action: Usually this is some young, brash fellow full of fire (and usually a few drinks of mead or ale) who takes pleasure in telling every one of his great deeds and prowess.
Quite often I have seen more than a little exaggeration happening in these boasts as well. To some it is an opportunity to express self-pride; to others it is almost a sport. This kind of thing is accepted as a part of the old Germanic culture and it would seem, is also encouraged today by some.
It is something that, no matter how long I have walked the path of the Pagan, I have never been overly comfortable with. I think that this is because too often I have seen people boasting and going on about things that they should not be: I have seen words from the brash go too far and indeed I have seen harm done through such things.
All too often have I witnessed men bluster and brag when in reality they have accomplished little. I was always taught that a man’s deeds speak for themselves and that a person who brags too much is actually weak.
I think these things occur largely because the people boasting have not taken the time to re-awaken themselves into the tribal mindset: They have not put the effort into un-learning the way of the mainstream and reacquainting their hearts with the manners and understandings that perhaps our ancestors may have held. There can be considerable ignorance there, in some of those people, and fuelled further by alcohol and the general conviviality of a lot of pagan events, this can lead to difficulties – not the least of which can be disrespectful behavior.
In my belief, while I am sure that even in the old days there were troublesome exceptions to the rule, the purpose of boasting was not so much prideful self aggrandizement but the furtherance of tribal pride. I believe that when one was in the presence of one’s kinsman and also perhaps non-related folk with sharp weapons, a certain amount of decorum would have been a wise choice.
Well, here is an area where my notion of moderated humility comes in. You see, I believe that a respectable amount of humility increases the nobility of a person and reminds them of their place in nature.
My Grandfather used to say this:
“A Warrior is a living balance: A mixture of strength, wisdom and proper humility.”
I believe it.
My uncle used to say this: “If you feel you absolutely must talk about yourself keep it simple and don’t bullshit.”
I believe that too.
Now I do not mean humility as in head down, subservient postures, or in a person thinking less of themselves; I mean knowing where one stands. In my experience the truly great ones made no bold claims; their deeds stood for themselves or were spoken of by others. The truly great ones were not overly talkative; but when they opened their mouths to speak, people listened.
And also the truly great do not take or claim titles for themselves. Such people might have these honors bestowed upon them by others however.
A late friend of mine, an aboriginal Elder of the Lakota Nation, once told me that in Indian culture an Elder NEVER refers to himself/herself as that; and that while the people might consider them to be Elders so or proclaim them so, they never take the title for themselves – it is thought to be rude.
The reason Wayne told me this was because he was commenting on all the “Fake Indians” out there; the new age charlatans who are making money from cultural theft of Native traditions. He wanted me to know that real Elders almost never make the claim of actually being Elders.
“Great people never claim to be great.” I was told. “If you are truly great then others will speak for you.”
I wonder if the same kind of things should be more frequently applied in Pagan ways. I have seen a good number of instances for instance, of people going around and boasting that they are some kind of high priest or holy person when in fact they seem to know very little of their particular Lore when questioned, or seem to have had no recognition as any kind of leader from any particular Pagan community.
I have seen people make exuberant claims about their lineage or their prowess in one particular skill or another – usually combat, lore-knowledge or rune-work – and have seen very little otherwise forthcoming from them to back that up.
Among the Théodish people there are wise-folk called Thyles whose task it is to challenge people who they think are over-doing it or perhaps even lying. The reasoning behind this, so I was told, is that falsehoods or overbearing can have an effect on the Ørlog of the group therefore there is an official of sorts to moderate this behavior.
Not all Pagan or Heathen groups or communities have this customary role among them however, and often, indeed one can see that the boasting can go too far…in my experience and opinion of course.
I am always reminded of my friend Werner. Werner is a nearly eighty- something old German sailor, originally from Berlin, who lives on his boat down at the waterside. He has been a devout Pagan most of his life and is a walking lore-book. The old Norse and German Sagas run off of his tongue like water and he just seems to know everything. He is dedicated to Njörd and Aegir, which is appropriate, as he spent over 50 years as a sailor. He is a master of offerings, an expert singer of the old songs of his people, a more than competent Runester and just about any other ritual aspect of his particular stream of Paganism that one might imagine.
YET, if you try to say that he is a holy man, a priest, a Gothi or even an Elder (and he obviously is an elder and a person of prominence in his area), he will deny it vehemently. He does not feel it is right for a man to overly grasp honors to himself. He believes that a man should do what he can do for the ancestors and his Elder Kin and the folk and after than let the deeds stand – not to make a big deal about it.
Werner is very close now to his last voyage upon this Earth, I think. He and his lifelong best friend, Wolfgang, are now quite aged and in pretty rough shape. Yet they have both told me that rather than die the straw death they will probably one day take Wolfgang’s 65ft ketch (A ship upon which I have feasted on more than a few times) and sail off into the pacific, never to be seen again. It is fitting and when they go I will wish them well – two strong and goodly Pagan men who have done much.
Then there is my first Thornish mentor, Ari, who held similar beliefs: He taught that it should be up to a man’s relations; his kin to sing his praises, not the man himself. He was an accomplished Warrior, woodsman, singer, artist and hunter among many other things, but in the years I knew him before he died I never once heard him boast about any of his many great accomplishments.
Others did it for him.
My late friend and mentor, Max Hyatt, was also greatly accomplished in many areas of life, yet he never made a fuss about his talents, and took praise quite uncomfortably.
His family and friends, among whom I am proud to count myself, tell Max’s tales for him now.
There were numerous others; all great, yet all exhibiting similar traits of humility.
So, to make a long story short; I have had some good role models. I believe that a bit of proper humility is part of the balance – part of a goodly person.
It is also a valued component of the teachings of the Thornwood. Pride and honor are greatly valued, yet Thornish folk will very rarely – if ever – be seen tooting their own horns.
If you ever sit around the fire with me you will probably hear me brag a fair bit – about the deeds of my kinsmen, friends and teachers and possibly of the deeds of my ancestors. You will seldom if ever hear me go on about myself.
To me humility has a place in the heart of the tribal person – even if that humility is a small thing it is evidence that we know our place in the scheme of nature and we are aware of the flow of luck through our tribe and family.