Compassion for refugees: A Pagan perspective

"The Stranger at the Door" (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.
"The Stranger at the Door" (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.

A recent Interfaith event held in Cambridge, Welcome to the Stranger, gave the PF’s Prudence Jones the chance to put forward the Pagan perspective on how we should treat strangers and refugees in our midst, and present Odin as a god of compassion.

“We each had six minutes to present our piece,” she explains. “I spoke on a selection of verses from the Hávamál, a collection of sayings, mostly attributed to Odin, compiled around 1270 in Iceland and probably derived from folk sayings from long before.

“I introduced them by mentioning that at the high point of Pagan culture, the complex civilisations of Greece and Rome, the duty of care to strangers was delegated to public officials much as in our own impersonal bureaucratised states. But Zeus God of Strangers and Jupiter the Hospitable nevertheless watched over the strangers’ destiny and could be invoked for justice. The pattern for personal interaction with guests and dependents however stemmed from a much earlier age of isolated settlements and solitary travellers [the Archaic age c.700 BCE, cf. Hesiod’s Works and Days], when two people would meet face to face.

“The chosen text [selected from Havamal] echoes exactly the same teaching but comes from an age much nearer to our own in space and time. These verses are the words of Odin, the High One, who like Zeus is also a god of wanderers.

“It was quite fun to present Odin here as a god of compassion. The essence of the selection is that generosity is its own reward as it destroys anxiety and faint-heartedness. Practical courtesy to strangers is advised, for any of us may have bad luck, but every refugee comes with their own back story of accomplishments, which may be of use or interest to us now or which may be turned to account for them as they find their feet. And the guest/ refugee has obligations too. This is a relationship of equals, one of whom is temporarily in need, not a paternalistic relationship of dependence. So the guest must behave considerately to the host, and eventually leave, so they do not incur justified resentment.

“The last bit was the bit the Muslim speaker liked, in our round table discussion at the end. He observed that foreigners come with skills and experience that need to be transformed into skills that are useful for their host country, and that the host country can help them do that. The essence of the Icelandic text is that it is about relationships between equals or potential equals. But of course in a complex modern (or ancient) society, refugees come in large groups and are dealt with by impersonal systems – they aren’t one sturdy individual turning up at another sturdy individual’s door.

Discuss… !”

A selection of the verses that Prudence quoted from is below.


48 Generous and brave men live the best,
they seldom harbour anxiety;
but the cowardly man is afraid of everything,
the miser even sighs when he gets gifts!

37 Even a small home is better than none;
everyone’s someone at home;
[but] a man’s heart bleeds when he has to beg
for every single meal.

2 Blessed be the givers!  A guest has come in,
where is he going to sit?

3 Fire is needful for someone who’s come in
and who’s chilled up to the knees;
food and clothing are needed for the man
who’s journeyed over the mountains.

4 Water is needful for someone who comes to a meal,
a towel and a warm welcome …

135 I advise you, Loddfáfnir, [naïve lad]
to take advice;
you would benefit, if you took it,
good will come to you, if you accept it:
do not scorn a guest
nor drive him away from your gates;
treat the homeless well.

132 …never hold up to scorn or mockery
a guest or a wanderer.

133 Often those who sit in hall do not really know
whose kin those newcomers are;
no man is so good that he has no blemish,
nor so bad that he can’t succeed in something.

69 No man is completely wretched, even if he has bad luck;
one man has been blessed with sons,
another with kinsmen, another has enough money,
another has done great deeds.

35 A man must go, he must not remain a guest
always in the same place;
the loved man is loathed if he sits too long
in someone else’s hall.

(With adaptations, from the translation by Carolyne Larrington 1996)