In modern day Paganism the subject of Karma (Sanskrit: from the root kr, "to do", [meaning deed] meaning action, effect, destiny) often comes up. The very importance of this concept to the modern Pagan can be understood as a result of syncretistic forces always at work, continually altering the religious landscape through a natural process of evolution - the ebb and flow of influences back and forth between cultures. It has always been present, as much in the ancient world as today, though perhaps the process has accelerated.
The question naturally arises as to the Heathen persepctive of these forces. Karma is an important religious concept outside of mainstream Christianity. It is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism, and Hinduism, Ayyavazhi, Sikhism, and Jainism all hold to this idea of cause and effect, or moral causation, of the ultimate responsibility of the individual for his or her actions. Wicca, also placing influenced by ideas of reincarnation has the three-fold law. What about Heathenism? Naturally, I cannot speak for all Heathens, but I can speak for me. The way I understand the workings of the world is that it is strongly causal. I think of it as the "Reap What you Sow" theory.
I've given some thought how best to explain Heathen concepts, since we tend to use terms not used by the rest of the Pagan community. I think that in this case the best way to approach the subject might be through a discussion of Lineage.
Lineage, which is of only economic and legal concern to Christians, is of far more compelling importantance to a Heathen. It is not simply a matter of an inherited name, of tracing ones ancestry or even the redirection of wealth and property at another's death. Everyone has a lineage, and lineages are not limited to human beings, but other items, such as swords, have them as well. A Lineage is not simply who your father was and who his father was and that sort of thing (though it would not be good to be known as "Hrafnkell the son of Harald, the Oath-breaker"), but also your actions and deeds. What have you done? Have you been a force for good in life, or for ill?
Lineages were important because lineage told you much about the person (or the sword) you had chosen to interact with. It's important to know about these things because when you interact with another person you are mixing with their ørlog, their past actions, and your fate becomes affected by their deeds, good or bad. If you know the lineage of a man or a sword, you can avoid becoming involved with say, a kinslayer, a murderer, or a thief, or what have you. Look at your life as a line on a graph. It is pure and white at birth and it will become more or less tinted (or tainted) as you go through life, depending upon how you conduct yourself and who you interact with for business, pleasure and also marriage.
Why is it that actions matter? Because we create our future. Because of wyrd, which is the cycle of cause and effect. Yes, there is fate, but fate is not fixed absolutely. We can always 'fudge' a little, if you wish to look at it that way, and heroes were thought to be able to overcome fate, to rise above the position and situation into which their own actions had placed them. Another way of looking at fate is to say that all the actions taken by my ancestors created my starting point, my ørlog, at birth. This was my starting situation, and it owed itself entirely to my lineage up until that point. I suppose you could say it was my fate to be born when and where and how I was. But once I am out of the womb and begin to undertake tasks and activities, I begin to affect my own fate. All my actions lead me towards a certain point.
This is the working of wyrd. But I am not alone in this process. The people I meet, the people I interact with, the people I choose to involve my ørlog with, affect my fate. I have let their ørlog affect my own. If I make a mistake and do not know the person's lineage, I might create problems for myself. Conversely, a person of good lineage would be an excellent choice for partnership, be it business or personal in nature.
A sword might be known as "the sword that slew Ragnar" or a man as "this is the man who saved Hrothgar, who was drowning" but he might as easily be known as "Ragnar, who drowned Hrothgar". While the first is desirable, you do not want that latter sort of ørlog intertwined with your own. In this latter case, Ragnar's lineage is suspect, to say the least, and its presence mixed with your own will have bad results. After all, how will it reflect upon you to be tangled up with a fellow known to have drowned another?
Reputation was important to the Heathen. As the Hávamál says,
The important thing is that at the point we begin to socialize with our fellow human beings, our fate becomes more easily and more widely affected.
oneself dies likewise,
but good renown
will never die
for him who earns it.
- Hávamál, 76
And ørlog? ørlog (ON ørlog) represents my actions, my deeds. It is the "Ahead law" - The results of previous actions upon verðanði, or the "present". Picture the world to be a well. Each thing I do is an item dropped into the well, building towards the surface, adding layers, if you prefer to think of it that way, creating a whole series of consequences that will determine my fate. Each action understaken by others with whom I associate also effects the mix. My today is determined by my yesterday, and by the yesterdays of those with whom I associate.. Now you can see where lineage comes in: Acting without knowledge is a bit of a fools's game - when you interact with other lineages you gain access to power/luck which can result in change to your own life. Ill-ørlog can have the opposite effect. It's that simple.
You can see now where cause and effect come in. You can see how for a Heathen we feel ourselves strongly responsible for our own actions, and why the deeds we undertake in this life are important, why this life matters. We are living it not only for ourselves, but for our children and for their children. We are the tail end of a lineage that descends into the deepest past, to the first Heathens themselves, to ancestors I cannot imagine, to the Regin, our Elder Kin, who created us. It is a heady responsibility, and also a burden.
I will in some way have to answer for their deeds, such as those ancestors of mine who broke Troth with the Regin (Gods) when the White Christ came to our lands. And likewise my actions, for good or ill, will advance the cause of my descendents or set it back. But the key for a Heathen is not the burden of the past, but the burden of the future, for in my turn I will become part of that past which will determine the future, part of the pavement beneath the feet of my descendents. I would like to be a good, solid stone for them to walk on. I would like my deeds to be deeds they can look proudly back upon.
Karma? Not precisely. Nor is it the same as Wicca's Three-Fold Law, wherein each action you undertake comes back at you three-fold. I would say it is a more powerful concept than either, for it affects not just the self, but all our descendents and all our associates and the community we are part of. Not being centered either on ideas of an afterlife or on a cycle of reincarnation, a Heathen's concerns tend to be centered less on himself and more on his family, clan and community. It extends backwards and forwards in time as far as can be imagined or is possible.
For a Heathen there are no mathematics of this sort. For us, the equation is much simpler. Live a good life or your descendents will suffer, not only yourself, not only the community around you. This is not Christianity's original sin, for it is not a failing of the whole human race due to the actions of some unknown proginator; it is simple cause and effect. And it can be expiated through right action. It does not require a divine savior dying for the sins of all. In ancient Norse law even an outlaw could be redeemed if he showed himself worthy through his deeds.
A Christian need only to repent to be right by God. There is always that easy escape from personal responsibility for one's actions. This is not a path open to Heathens. Like karma, wyrd and ørlog are a balancing force, and leaves the Heathen conscious of his immense responsibility towards not only his ancestors, whom he wishes to honor and to make proud, and not only towards himself, but also towards his children, and to his children's children, and to theirs, all down through eternity until Ragnarök or whatever end may come.1
A FINAL NOTE: How does this compare with the Christian view of how the world works? After I had written this I was watching an interview with Terrell Owens, wide receiver of the Dallas Cowboys, on NFL Channel. T.O. was talking about last season, about how "God put me here" and "in that situation" and so forth. This is entirely contrary to the Heathen point of view. God did not put me here. I put me here, through my actions and based on the ørlog and those of the people with whom I have come into contact. God is not part of the equation.
I would assert that the attitude so often expressed by T.O. and other Christian celebreties dismisses personal responsibility: "I didn't do this, God did" and "God doesn't give you more than you can handle," and so forth. Or its corollary: "I would like to thank God..." which again puts God's will at the center of the equation and also dismisses personal responsibility. The actor wins the award based on their talent, their effort, and their actions (and sometimes in spite of them) but generally not because of any direct action taken by God.
This is not to say that the Gods cannot and will not intervene in Midgard. Our ancestors believed they could and did, and I believe the same. But this is not the view expressed by Christians, who generally place it all on their God's shoulders.
1 Ragnarök. Literally "twilight of the gods," from ragna + rokr, ragna being the gen. form of "regin" and rokr, meaning "twilight." This is the doom of the gods, in some far distant future, when they will be destroyed with the world and most of their mortal children.
Lineage is important to a Heathen
All the actions taken by my ancestors created my starting point, my ørlog, at birth.