(Note: I use “man” for person in this post to avoid annoying pronoun awkwardness. However, weregild was also paid for women. So just keep in mind than “man” means person, and “he” means he or she. Also, please read the star notes at the bottom.)
What is the worth of a man? According to ancient heathen law, if a man was slain, his killer had to pay weregild to his family. In general, there was a generally accepted price for the death of a free man. Chiefs and kings might require greater compensation*, while the killing of an outlaw carried no burden of compensation at all.
The weregild was set often set by custom, but it was subject to acceptance by the family of the deceased. They could demand a higher weregild based on the circumstances, or refuse to accept weregild at all and seek revenge instead. In this way, the process of restitution was based somewhat on general values set by community and somewhat on the inclination of the injured parties.
The custom of weregild was far more than a quaint way of settling disputes. It has much to tell us about how the ancient heathens saw life and what they valued. An outlaw had no value. A person much beloved by their family or community might command a higher weregild than someone who was not respected.
This suggests that the value of life is in the connections a person has to those around them. The more that the community relied upon a person, the harder it would be to make restitution for their death. A chief was supposed to be someone who gave to the community. He would be the most respected person in the district, and respect was given on the basis of what one contributed to the community. To lose someone respected for their work on behalf of the community would be a terrible loss. Mercian law stated that half the wergild for a king was to be paid to his family and half to his community. This was to compensate the community for the loss of someone who was supposed to be relied upon by everyone.*
On the other end of the spectrum, no compensation was required for the killing of an outlaw. Someone who had been declared no good had no value. In becoming an outlaw, a man was severed from his connections to the community. Someone with no connection to the community, who made no contribution to the good of the whole, was considered utterly worthless.
The ancient heathens did not share the Roman idea that all crimes are crimes against the state. Cases were not prosecuted by public prosecutors but by individuals or families who felt they had been wronged. Therefore, if someone was killed who no one cared to claim weregild for, the case might never reach the Thing (the court). Therefore the only way a person could ensure that he would not be unjustly killed was to have someone who would care enough about him to sue his killer or take revenge if that failed.
A person’s worth in heathen society was determined by what they gave to the community and by who they were connected to and had relationships of mutual obligation with. The value of a life was based upon a person’s place in their family and community. This has profound implications for heathens today.
The first is that we are not meant to be solitary. Our value is determined by our family. Heathens should make their best effort to meet family obligations. If our blood families cannot accept us or hold values that are morally corrosive, it is up to us to form our own families (not necessarily blood) as groups with mutual obligations. We should have other people as a part of our lives and be a part of other people’s lives. We were never meant to be solitary creatures. While our religion provides good guidance for a person alone, it is clear that our goal must be to be a part of a healthy community.
“The pine tree wastes which is perched on the hill,
nor bark nor needles shelter it;
such is the man whom none doth love;
for what should he longer live?” Havamal 50
Many heathens find comfort in heathen groups, but there is no requirement that our ‘families’ be religiously homogeneous. The important binding principle of the community is mutual obligation and loyalty. In the old days these ideas were expressed religiously, but there are many ways of following these values, often expressed in different religions. The worth of a man’s actions is of far more importance than the words he chooses to justify them with. By heathen tradition our “tribe” is made up of those we routinely exchange gifts with.** The ancient heathens certainly had no objections to marrying or otherwise accepting people of other religions, so long as all agreed to respect the traditions of the others.
The second implication is that our value is determined by our community. This doesn’t mean that we must be loved by every soccer mom in the school district. It means that we must find the contribution we have to offer our community. Some people are gifted in leadership. Others are gifted in science, discovery, thinking, art, music, or some other area of life. By making a contribution to the life of the community, we add value to our own lives. We might be respected for our music, our ideas, for contributing in local politics, for teaching, or for community service. The point is not what we do. The point is that we be known for something worthwhile.
There is a third way of valuing a man, which was too obvious to be explicitly stated in the old law codes. It is also a private and personal thing, not something which old law codes could legislate. That is the relationship a person has with the land and the spirits. Our relationship and responsibility to the land is an important part of who we are. After all, if relationships are defined by the exchange of gifts, then what greater relationship could we have than with Earth who has literally given us everything- from the water in our blood to the minerals that make up our bones? Does that not imply obligations upon us in turn?
*I’m assuming that the chief or king here is a good leader who serves the community. History rarely bears that out, so I’m just including the caveat that I DO NOT support the notion that some rich asshole has more worth than a peasant. That said, I also suspect weregild for a king was higher because they were mostly likely going to be killed by someone who was also wealthy. Therefore for the compensation to be a real hardship on the killer, the weregild had to be higher. If you were rich and could just kill the king and pay the fine, then there wouldn’t be much of a downside to killing the king.
**Which might be each member of a family making dinner for everyone in turn, or one spouse fixing the car while the other cleans the house. The gifts we exchange that bind us are not Christmas-present type gifts, but the balanced flow of things done for the good of the whole. The old custom of barn-raising is a good analogy here. The community comes together and raises a barn for one family with the expectation that they community will do the same for them. Big gifts cannot buy one friends, it is in sharing what we have that we build strong relationships.
“Not great things alone must one give to another,
praise oft is earned for nought;
with half a loaf and a tilted bowl
I have found me many a friend.” Havamal 52