Are Heathen Beards Sacred?

So there’s been a bit of a push in recent years that somehow male facial hair was extra special to ancient Heathens, and this has been the basis for some today to ask for special waivers who are serving in the military, such as stories of US service men who are being granted these waivers. I am glad to see that the military is open to these religious accommodations for not only Heathens, but those of other religious and cultural groups too.

While I have no problem with people making a personal choice in their appearance, or making symbolic outward choices as a way to express their own devotions, I do find it highly problematic that the notion that a Heathen man >must< have facial hair (as an aspect of religious identity) is being so strongly pushed and spreading into the community at large.

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Image depicting an Assortment of Modern Beard Styles

So I decided to do a deep dive into the supposed sources for this drive from the lore, but in the process also discovered that this push in modern times is in particular coming from a fringe males only ‘religious’ group whose focus is on masculinity, not the Reginn (Holy Powers).

FROM THE HISTORICAL SOURCES

Most who are arguing for it are using Njal’s Saga as their point of reference, where the eponymous Njal is repeatedly insulted as being unmanly for his lack of being able to grow a beard. (In much the way some men will mock adolescent males who can’t grow a full beard yet today). The entire saga is one of the feud sagas, and really can be seen as being exaggerated with a lot of commentary over what is manly and what is unmanly, in addition to the overly hyped up importance of what is or isn’t honorable. You have Thorhall Asgrimsson ashamed to be caught grieving, but he’s not crying tears rather he is weeping blood out of his ears when he learns of Njal’s death.  The saga itself is full of absurdity, and has very little to do with religion at all.  

To dive a little deeper it is important to note that Njal’s Saga was written in the 13th century, a good two centuries or more after the events it supposedly describes (and well into the Middle Ages and Christian Europe). Respected scholar Gabriel Turville-Petre reminds us to take the story with a grain of salt, “It was not the author’s purpose to write a work of history, but rather to use a historical subject for an epic in prose”. It was penned in Christian times, and so the entire concept of it being representative of pre-Christian custom is entirely suspect. We have ample evidence from the later sagas showing a cultural milieu by the scholars penning those tales, where they alluded to other great literary works (Greek, Roman, or occasionally Biblical) within their own tales, like Snorri’s claim Odin was the Trojan King and Thor was the hero Hector. So we clearly see these late scholars adding things of their own choice to the stories. So we need to be mindful of this when looking at Njal’s saga. To assume the tale is 100% authentic is folly at best.

Another reference often used to build the case for sacred beards, derives from the Guta Lag (Law of the Gotlanders), that lists a penalty for injury to a beard. Again this dates to the 13th Century (by which time the area is under Christian control). But this is also the same source that makes it clear performing a blot (a pre-Christian religious rite) was a criminal act. So you know it’s entirely possible hair customs by this point and time are counter to pre-Christian times. There were many laws enacted throughout Scandinavia about anything that was tied to old religious custom. So if a custom was rooted in religious heathen practice, like the consumption of horse-meat, it was outlawed in the legal code. So if hair (including facial hair) was a religious custom of pre-Christianity, there’s a strong likelihood it would have legal prohibitions against practicing/wearing it if it denoted Heathen religious significance. 

Looking at the mention in Guta lag from a secular point of view, so much of our pride of self is reflected in our appearance, and the choices we exert in how we choose to appear and style ourselves. So it seems reasonable to me there’d be a penalty for taking that choice away from someone, especially if the intent was to somehow ridicule, denigrate, or degrade a person. Considering there are also laws that outline what the penalty is for giving someone a facial scar, it seems to fall more into a category of personal appearance, than it does to any sort of religious signifier.

The better sources to me are the earlier ones. We see in eye-witness reports at least among that men were described as having both facial hair or preferring shaven faces. Ibn Fadlan’s account comes to us from 951 CE from his travels among the Rus & Volga. This source is at least a contemporaneous resource and eye-witness account (not written centuries after the fact, but rather written and penned during Heathen times). 

Descriptions from Ibn Fadlan describe the heathen men as wearing their beards plaited, or presenting a shaven face, thus the issue of facial hair seemed to be a personal choice. However, those with beards bleached them to a saffron yellow using a strong lye soap. This isn’t the first occurrence of a bleaching or coloring custom among the historic areas of the Northern Tradition.

The Viking Age peoples of Northern Europe had a lot of influence and ancestry in many cases from the Germanic Tribes. The later Viking Age peoples and the powerful tribes of the time either came from descended offshoots of those Germanic tribes (the Yngvonnes become the Angles for example), or settled in areas where those tribes had once held sway and in the process there was cultural blending. Many Germanic tribes shared cultural touchstones like Odin or Woden (as well as other common deities) with what we see pop up later in Viking Age Scandinavian religion, so while one has to be careful NOT to say the cultural values and practices are the same, we can look to these earlier sources and see where we can find parallels, and it is worth examining what was happening among them as well.

So as we look even further back to the customs of the Germanic tribes, we find some interesting references to hair and facial hair customs. In the first century text Historia Naturalis by Pliny the Elder, he noted a custom of bleaching hair and beards commonly done among Germanic men of the tribe that evokes what we see later in Ibn Fadlan’s time among the Rus nd Volga. “Soap is the invention of the Gauls and this is used to redden the hair. It is made from fat and ashes. The best is beech wood ash and goat fat, the two combined, thick and clear. Many among the Germans use it, the men more than the women.” We’re not sure if this was an aesthetic choice for the yellow blonde color, or if (as has been suggested by other scholars) the dye was a secondary effect and the primary purpose was to be used to treat and prevent any infestations of lice, fleas and other pests.

In Chapter 31 of Tacitus’s Germania (also a first century text) we learn about the Germanic tribe of the Chatti. Among them, once a male Chatti achieved manhood they let their beard and hair grow as a symbol of their warrior duty to their family and tribe. Only those who stood over the bleeding bodies of their defeated enemies could then shave their face and cut their hair. So long hair and a beard was seen as the mark of a coward, or those who were unwarlike.

Tacitus’ also talks in chapter 38 about the Suebi tribe, and mentions a particular hair style, the Suebian Knot. “One mark of the race is to comb the hair back over the side of the head and tie it low in a knot behind: this distinguishes the Suebi from other Germans, and the free-born of the Suebi from the slave.” So here we see a cultural custom that denotes free membership of a particular tribe, so thereby denotes status, but seemingly has no mention to it having any religious import. Tacitus goes on to describe how the custom does occasionally crop up outside the Suebi, “In other tribes, whether from some relationship to the Suebi, or, as often happens, from imitation, the same thing may be found; but it is rare and confined to the period of youth.”  He provides us with more information to, of how the custom is kept until old age, and how there is a special style worn to denote status of elevated rank too: “Among the Suebi, even till the hair is grey, the rough locks are twisted backward, and often knotted on the very crown: the chieftains wear theirs somewhat more ornamentally, to this extent interested in appearances, but innocently so.”

Sidonius, in his Letters (written in the 5th century), talks about the sea-faring blue-eyed Saxon and their tendency to shave back their hair, “along the extreme edges of his pate the razor, refusing to restrain its bite, pushes back the frontier of his hair and, with the growth thus clipped to the skin, his head is reduced and his face enlarged.” Some debate is had on if it was just hair, or hair and facial hair that rendered the appearance of such a wide face.

While Pliny, Tacitus and Sidonius’ works give us some understanding of aesthetic customs relating to hair (and sometimes facial hair at that) we need to also consider that there’s definitely a difference between a cultural aesthetic norm of the time, and a religious tradition. In Greece, those who served Vesta had a specific hairstyle to denote them–that is a religious custom. Automatically anyone who saw that hairstyle KNEW it denoted something specifically religious in that culture. We also know that as part of a rite from boyhood into adulthood, that in Greek culture boys grew their hair long, and upon their ephebeia (coming of age) their hair would be cut short and the shorn locks would be given in offering to Apollo in his aspect of Apollo Kourotrophos (protector of the young). When I had an opportunity to travel to Denmark years ago, I was struck by some of the discoveries found in the archaeological record found in the northern Jutland region of what today is Denmark. On display in the National Museum in Copenhagen, along side precious metal worked objects, were also discovered the braids of women’s hair that had been cut and sacrificed in the bog as a form of religious offering around 350 BCE.  These are authentic examples of a religious oriented hair custom, even though we’re not sure what precisely was the motivation for the offering of the hair. 

But a woman with a short bob hairstyle from the 1920s was just wearing something that was a cultural fad of fashion and aesthetics, the way a handlebar mustache was normally worn during the 19th century as a mode of fashion by many men. Men of a certain time may have culturally had a norm for their hair to appear a certain way, that had nothing whatsoever to do with it being an indication of religious practice. Some fashions and aesthetics had to do about hierarchical rank, and nothing to do about religious station. We see this especially with the dress codes of what men and women of notable rank could wear, versus the rest of the populace in England for instance, with even degrees of separation between ranks among the aristocracy. Or we see this with the Suebi and the Suebian knot, as a special version was worn by chieftains versus other free men of the tribe, and those without it were slaves or outsiders of the tribe.


The Eddas and Sagas usually describe men and Gods with beards. But these sources come to us almost entirely post-conversion, sometimes centuries later, and are being penned by Christian scholars. The few exceptions to this, can be found among some of the skaldic poetry which tends to be overlooked and ignored. Some of those skalds were in fact heathens, or had formerly been heathen but converted to Christianity in their lifetime. So when it comes to what is in the sagas and eddas we always need to take it with a grain of salt and recognize it is not going to be 100% authentic. So even if persons or deities in the lore are described with or without a beard is immaterial when it comes to the issue at hand: did beards import sacredness? We have no reference anywhere to the time periods of heathen custom that the way a man’s hair was worn, or a man’s facial hair was treated (bearded and styled, or kept shaven) had any specific religious significance. If we look to the Germanic tribes we can make a case about cultural norms of the tribe, and even status, but we cannot make a case for a beard being perceived as being tied to sacred expression.

When we look to the archaeological record from bodies, to depictions in art we see a vast array of examples of hair and facial hair ranging from:

  • long beards (conical or plaited) – Kirkby Stephen Stone believe to depict Loki, Bone Gamepiece from Lund, Þórr Figure from Akureyri, Ithyphallic Freyr Figure from Rallinge, Tängelgårda Rune Stone
  • mustache with close trimmed beard – Carved head from Oseberg Ship Burial, Gunnar in the Snakepit Carving on Sledge from the Oseberg Ship Burial, Vendel Helmet Plate of Odin
  • beards but no mustaches – various guldgubber kissing figures
  • mustaches with no beards – Helmet Plate from Torslunda, Loki Snaptun Stone, Carved Head on Sledge from the Oseberg Ship Burial
  • and clean shaven faces – Bayeaux Tapestry, Sutton Hoo Burial Mound 1, Gold Bracteates from Funen Denmark  
If we look across the guldgubber kissing figures, a motif found across a multitude of goods at various sites, created roughly in the same period, we see that the male usually has a pointed chin indicating a beard, but in some depictions the male figure appears clean shaven. In more than one case in the archaeological evidence, we find a site that gives us multiple depictions of men’s facial hair at the same site, with artifacts dated to within a very short period of time to each other. The Oseburg Ship Burial has given us depictions of men with mustaches and close trimmed beards, as well as a man with a mustache and no beard. In Sutton Hoo Mound 1 we have two men with mustaches and conical beards, one man with no mustache but a conical beard, and then a combination of men with mustaches but no beards, or men who were clean shaven.  Similarly the Bayeaux Tapestry depicts both clean-shaven men, and men who only had thin mustaches.


At best we can only make the argument that beards and the wearing of them is a matter of personal choice and cultural aesthetics of a time period, possibly a symbol of some sort of social status for a geo-specific culture but not a widespread symbol of religious dedication.

THE MODERN – YET FRINGE- DRIVER OF SACRED BEARDS

I discovered one of the big pushes for this modern surge for sacred beards in Heathenry is coming from a Norwegian based males-only organization homed at FornSidr.com, who will give support to US or Canadian soldiers wanting to make the request, but ONLY if they are a dues paying member (which also requires you to sign up to pay an annual membership fee, and complete certain coursework which has additional price tags attached to it first). Funny, how a Norwegian organization is so interested in what’s happening in North America. Is this push just some tactless cash grab? Probably, at least in part.

They seem AWFULLY concerned about perceptions of masculinity. Here’s a couple of screenshots from their page:

And quoting their statement from the screenshot (in case anyone has difficulties viewing it):

WE ARE NORÐMENN

We are defined by innate and natural biological traits and characteristics essential to the very survival of our species, and based on hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

Our fair skin has allowed us to thrive in the winter darkness of the north and our exceptional fitness, stoicism, and resilience to settle the harshest environments on earth. We have built western civilization with our genes, blood and sweat.

We celebrate our ancestral primal, tribal and warrior nature, and we foster our óðr through channelled aggression and sexuality outside of modern societal as well as abrahamic constructs. We protect our lands, our resources, our culture, and our own, against all threats.

We embrace equality of opportunity, competition, as well as natural selection, and we welcome as our brothers, through life and beyond, all those men who share our identity and ethos.

We are the sacred essence of life and we perpetuate mankind complemented by women whose essential and primary nurturing role has been defined by nature from times immemorial.

WE ARE MEN

I don’t know about you, but this description makes me highly suspicious of the group’s motivations. And as of 2019 they’ve trademarked the term Forn Sidr, a term used to describe religious identity for decades across areas of Europe and are going after other groups using it, such as Forn Sidr of America. In one such article about the brouhaha between FS and FSoA by the fringe ‘news source’ Helluland National Broadcasting Service (which realistically is highly editorialized propaganda pieces as their self-descriptor is “Uncensored news from a Viking Perspective” that is of course ironic considering the Vikings were a historical occupation (pirates comprised of various ethnicities and religious groups from a wide area) from centuries ago and there’s no nation of Helluland) wrote “Is there anything women of all genders will not ruin?” referring to the women and transgendered women behind Forn Sidr of America as HNBS’ article on the subject clearly could be summarised by stating FS is awesomely right, and this FSoA is disgusting. As I dug down I clearly saw links between FS, HNBS, Helluland.org, Wall-of-women.org and Norskk.com as they seem to have some sort of inter-connected relationship in the clickable links between them.

So I am going to state here that I’ve stumbled upon part of the crazy fringe of modern Heathenry. Anyone letting (at least partially misogynistic), hyperly masculine groups drive what is and isn’t sacred (in this case beards as they have an entire page dedicated to it) really needs to stop and think things through. Their rhetoric makes it very clear their focus is more on masculinity and themselves, than it is the Reginn and other holy powers. They have a page devoted to the statement “We are Men” in multiple languages, and a page devoted to beards on their site. Do I see a page devoted to any of the Gods or Goddesses? Not a one. In fact they oxymoronically call the beard a religious symbol, while also making it clear they neither pray nor worship any of the Holy Powers: “In fact, we do not pray or worship per say the Æsir, Ásynjur, Vanir, Jötnar, Aðrir, Kindir, or Kynja.”

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The only time I see Gods mentioned at all are only in passing, like when they’re trying to make their cases about the need for male warriors to have access to violence and sex, and when violence isn’t an option they need to offset it with more sex. Oh and the only warriors are men (also proclaimed by the sister organization who likes to debunk shield-maidens and women warriors all while sporting anatomy differences for why women shouldn’t fight, funny how the sister organization’s content all links to the Norskk page instead of being a true stand alone site).

So my distillation summary of the group is that they are an extreme fringe faction that promotes a modern fantasy cultural way of life for the self-inflated male ego along viking warrior themed lines. Their religion is that of their SELF.

There are other increasingly fringe extremist and white supremacy groups on the edges of our religion also pushing for the beard for their own reasons. While not every soldier wanting to wear a beard is from such a group, I think the problem is that so many of these groups have gotten so good about hiding their real intent when they promote various types of propaganda, that it confuses others.

MY FINAL THOUGHTS

I personally don’t care if some decide to wear a beard as a sign of their personal devotion. Such a choice is to me synonymous with the person who chooses to wear period garb for ritual as it puts them into sacred mindfulness, or how another will get a tattoo, or wear a certain piece of jewelry (like a Thor’s hammer) as representational of their religious devotion. Those are indeed beautiful acts of religious expression, and things not to be mocked. Nor do I want to mitigate those who feel that a deity has asked them to do a thing as well in honor of Them. But the insistence I see by some that it was irrefutably the case, that it MUST be done, is neither factual or historically accurate. Nothing in lore or found in the archaeological record definitively points to facial hair as a religious codifier. Don’t let the propaganda of a fringe group that doesn’t even worship the Gods and Goddesses muddy the issue: we have no evidence that beards were perceived as being sacred. But to an individual heathen man who makes a choice to wear one for that reason, it can be sacred to him.