-written by Dan Coultas, edited by the Chair of Asatru UK
For many years there has been a recurring discussion regarding the right of Heathens in the armed forces and other uniformed organisations to grow a Beard. Many misinformed groups argue that Heathens should be allowed exemptions from dress-code rules and uniform regulations with regards to facial hair on religious grounds. Sometimes those who are new to Heathenry read the arguments made by these groups and are convinced by them as they often claim to be based on historical sources. In this article I will examine the evidence that is often put forward.
The Sagas that are often quoted at no point describe a spiritual reason to wear a beard. They are often either just a physical description of people in the sagas who have beards. At no point do they mention any spiritual or religious aspect of beard wear. The lines that mention the wearing of beards are stated below.
“There's not much to choose though between you two. Thou hast hangnails on every finger and Njal is beardless.” – Simply a physical description of 2 people, one has a beard, one does not, but there is no implication that this makes one more spiritual than the other.
“But Thorvald, thy husband was not beardless and yet thou plottedst his death” – No mention of any spiritual connotation of beards.
“Who will avenge it? She asks, is it the beardless carle?” – Physical description of someone who doesn’t have a beard. The fact that he is beardless is an easy way to identify someone in an era where most people had beards, but it doesn’t imply any religious requirement to do so.
“Prithee why should dung beard boys reft of reason, dare to hammer.” – These people have beards, they just have dung in them, no religious relevance.
“He the beardless carle shall listen while I lash him with abuse.” – Physical description.
“Making mirth of dung beard boys, here I find a nickname for these noisome dung beard boys.” -Has beard, and yet still is insulted.
“Him, that churl, the beardless carle.” – Physical description.
“Ye are nicknamed "dung-beardlings" but my husband "the beardless carle.” – Repetition of the above descriptions.
“Away with you home ye dung-beardlings! Says Hallgerda "and so we will call you always from this day forth, but your father we will call "the beardless carle.” -Has beard, and yet still is insulted.
“I think that thy father the beardless carle must have given it.” – Physical description.
“While his beard blushed red for shame?” – Has a beard, no religious relevance.
“He was a big man and strong, fair to look on, and had a great beard. Therefore was he called Most-Beard, and he was the noblest man on the island.” – Proof that some men had big beards at the time. No spiritual connection.
“Snorri was middling in height and somewhat slender, fair to look on, straight faced and light of hue, of yellow hair and red beard.” – A physical description of someone who had a beard. He is also slender, fair to look on and has yellow hair. This is just as much an argument that all Heathens should be slender with yellow hair as it is that they should wear beards.
“Ulfar wagged his beard and handed him the sword and shield.” – A physical description of someone who had a beard, and happened to wag it.
“Thrond was a big man of growth, and red haired he was, and red bearded.” – A physical description of someone who had a beard.
"When they heard he was dead for sooth, all the warriors wept, as was meet. Down beard and chin ran the tears of Dietrich's men.” – A physical description of someone who had a beard.
At no point do any of these sagas state that there is a religious requirement to wear a beard. They are simply physical descriptions of the people in the sagas. For context here are a collection of similar quotes from the Bible. If the above saga quotes can be used to argue that Heathens should be allowed a beard, then these Bible quotes could just as easily be used to argue that Christians should be allowed a beard.
2 Samuel 10:4-5 So Hanun seized David's envoys, shaved off half of each man's beard, cut off their garments at the buttocks, and sent them away. When David was told about this, he sent messengers to meet the men, for they were greatly humiliated. The king said, "Stay at Jericho till your beards have grown, and then come back."
1 Samuel 21:13 So he disguised his sanity before them, and acted insanely in their hands, and scribbled on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva run down into his beard.
Judges 16:17 So he told her all that was in his heart and said to her, "A razor has never come on my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother's womb. If I am shaved, then my strength will leave me and I will become weak and be like any other man."
Similar passages can be found in many world religions. They are descriptions of the people of the time. They are not evidence of a religious requirement to wear a beard.
The difference in Islam and Sikhism is that there is a specific Religious rather than social requirement. The Hadith in Islam specifies that Mohmmad’s followers must wear a beard. Likewise, hair is part of God’s creation to Sikhs, and is therefore sacred. “Kesh” — maintaining uncut hair all over their bodies is one of the five articles of faith for Sikhs, both men and women. In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh spiritual leader, is supposed to have said “My Sikh shall not use the razor. For him the use of razor or shaving the chin shall be as sinful as incest.”
The following laws from Christian Scandinavia are often quoted:
Jónsbók – Written in 1281 by Jón Einarsson, a Christian, in Iceland, after the public practice of Heathenry was outlawed.
Grágás – Can refer to several different sets of laws, but the earliest is from 13th Century Iceland, again over 200 years since the Christianisation. In this Grágás the very first chapter is Christian Law. There is no mention of any Heathen practice in the document. This document is generally accepted to be the codification of the oral tradition of the early Christian period in Iceland, not the Heathen period.
Guta Lag, the laws of Gotland in Sweden were also written over a century after the Christianisation, and reflect a heavily Christianised version of the older laws. These laws also specifically outlaw the practice of Heathenry.
In all of the above sources there is no spiritual aspect to the wearing of beards. It is purely societal, and even if it were spiritual, these are Christian laws, from a period where the practice of Heathenry was outlawed.
These laws are from medieval Scandanavia, and not relevant today. If you were to apply these laws to Heathens, they would for example be able to avoid punishment for murder by paying werguild. Likewise, they would not be able to worship the old Gods, as these laws specifically forbid it.
It is sometimes pointed out that there have been cases in the US military whereby Heathens have been allowed to wear beards. These are individual cases where a unit commander has been convinced that a Heathen should be allowed a beard, probably due to a lack of understanding of the lore, and a desire not to be seen to discriminate. It is not an official policy of the US military.
The Open Halls Project, an organisation for serving and veteran Heathens in the US Military, has the same policy towards the wearing of beards as the Defence Pagan Network (DPN) in the UK, that there is no spiritual or religious reason why serving Heathen men should be given exemptions from the regulations regarding facial hair.
The DPN has also been presented with an argument that being clean shaven is ‘unmanly’ in a Heathen, and that warriors should have beards. This is not only directly insulting to all servicemen who do not have beards, but also to all servicewomen. Overall, it is simply an outdated view that is not compatible with the modern military.
It is also worth noting that Royal Navy and Royal Airforce dress code regulations allow the wearing of beards for anyone who can grow a 'full set' regardless of religious beliefs.
Recognised Civilian UK Organisation Policy on beards
Neither of the two largest inclusive Heathen organisations in the UK, namely Heathenry UK and Asatru UK recognise any religious requirement for Heathen men to wear a beard.
Likewise, The Pagan Federation, which has been representing the rights of pagans in the UK for nearly 50 years, is unaware of any religious requirement for Heathens to wear beards.
Something that is a core tenant of Heathenry is the importance of oaths. Upon joining the military individuals swear an oath to the Monarch to follow the rules of the service they have joined. This includes following dress regulations. Being known as an oath breaker is possibly the greatest insult to someone who holds Heathen values. Reputation is at the very core of Heathenry.
“Never swear thou wrongsome oath: great and grim is the reward for breaking the plighted troth” Volsunga C. 21.
Without an explicit religious requirement to wear a beard, the likelihood of the military changing the regulations that were Oathed to uphold for Pagans to keep beards, is very unlikely. This is not a matter of religious rights, rather a matter of attempting to get the authority you swore the Oath to, to change the conditions of the Oath. This could equally be applied to dress codes in civilian organisations where an individual has signed a contract, stating that they will follow the rules.
Answering questions about beard policy is a regular occurrence for the DPN, Open Halls Project and many other organisations, but to date there is no compelling evidence that Heathens should be allowed to wear a beard in contravention of any organisations dress codes or uniform regulations. The Pagan Federation, Heathenry UK, Asatru UK, as well as The Open Halls Project in the US and DPN in the UK all agree on this.
It is for these reasons that we at the DPN will not directly intervene, on the beard matter. Moreover, it is their view that focusing on this issue not only detracts from far more important issues, but also makes Heathens appear foolish and uneducated in our own religious beliefs in the eyes of the MOD.
Many Heathens today have beards, but this is a cultural rather than a religious phenomenon in exactly the same way it was in 10th century Europe. Beards are a popular fashion right now across society, regardless of religious belief. And indeed there were European tribes in the Heathen period where being clean shaven was the fashion, or in the case of the Lombards, long moustaches!
Image (c) 2020 Matt Greenway