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A Code for the Fearless and Fair

“How shall we live our lives?” The question echoes down the millennia from every human culture and continues to tug at our minds today. Men and women have answered this question in many different ways, sometimes nobly and sometimes less so.

During that episode in the Germanic experience we call the Viking Age, a code of honor developed that epitomizes many of the things that we hold dear even today. Though this code developed in response to the unique demands of that era, it has many features that are timeless and which we can apply to our own lives in the twenty-first century. This was a code for the fearless and fair, called drengskapr in the ancient tongue of the Northlands.

Truth be told, the idea was known long before the first viking sailed out of a fjord for plunder or profit.  It permeated the culture of the Germanic tribes long before the Viking Age, and was described by sophisticated Mediterranean commentators.  The Norsemen simply took the ideals of their ancestors, and showed them to a broader world.

To understand drengskapr, we first have to grasp the root word from which it springs. A dreng was a gallant lad, a young man who was a member of a warrior band or some other small group where one had to depend on others for success – or even for life itself. The ship’s crew and the military unit were all examples of this tightly-knit group. From the nature of these bands, we can infer a lot about what drengskapr must have meant in the days of our ancestors, and what it must be to us today.

The dreng must of course be strong and courageous, but that in itself was not enough. Beyond bravery and battle prowess, there were other traits, most revolving around how the individual related to the others in the group. Honesty, even to the point of bluntness, was important because in the war band or the ship’s crew there was no place for hidden animosities that might boil over at a crucial moment and bring disaster to all. Likewise, a stubborn cheerfulness, or at least a stoic acceptance of hardship, helped maintain morale when times were tough – when the group’s endeavors were not prospering, when the ship had to be physically hauled over long portages, or when rations were short. Generosity, always admired in Germanic society, was even more important for the dreng. One who shared what he had with his fellows – a meal, a knife, a bowstring – furthered the survival of all.

This set of highly-desired characteristics spring from the dynamic of small teams surrounded by danger. Most of us are not in that situation, but that is not really the point. The idea of drengskapr uses these very practical survival traits as a springboard to a larger nobility, a highness of mind that elevates all our activities. It is the opposite of all that is lowly or stingy or petty. Drengskapr gives the lie to the viking stereotype of a cruel, blood-soaked savage with no moral code. True, not every viking followed the high standards of the dreng, but the ideal was there, and all could aspire to it.

Drengskapr implies certain duties to a friend, but also to a foe. Long before the Viking Age, the Germanic tribesmen amazed Roman soldiers by picking them up and dusting them off after a skirmish. Today, we might consider this as going too far. Still, the idea that we owe something even to our enemies is an important one. We are not obliged to love our enemies – but we owe them respect in the measure they deserve it. The valor and skill of our foes does us honor, and we should honor them in return.

In the decadent culture that surrounds us, drengskapr is a rare quality. You can find vestiges of it in the football team and the infantry squad, but in general our world does not value noble conduct. But who can deny that our world needs this model of fairness, generosity, and bravery? And where can it start, if not with us, as we go about our lives each day?

As one of my heroes once said, “Change yourself and you will change thousands.”

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