Project that I neglected, forgot, or simply didn’t have time to write).
I’ve been writing quite a bit and talking quite a bit lately about the concept of nefas. This isn’t a term that most people are familiar with but more and more I’m coming to think that for devotional polytheists at least, it’s one that we should take closely and
firmly to heart. I first encountered the term nefas in my Latin studies. This word was integral to Roman religious values and observances and while a powerful concept, it represented something atrocious and horrible, something to be avoided at all costs. When I encounter it in a Latin text it stands out. It makes a statement. It burns a hole in the fabric of the narrative in a way that is not, for me at least, easily by -passed.
So what is nefas? The word actually lacks a perfect English analog. In Latin it’s a compound of fas, which means lawful (usually in a religious sense) and the negative particle ne. One can find the same compound occurring in the word for feast days. Fasti are lawful religious holidays while nefasti are days so ill-omened that no work might be done on them. Essentially,nefas is an act that is spiritually unlawful and unclean; it is an act that spiritually pollutes. Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary defines it as “something contrary to divine law, unlawful, execrable, abominable, criminal, an impious or wicked deed, a sin, a crime.” So atrocious was an act of nefas that the word came to imply a specifically unspeakable violation of divine law.
Such violations had (and have) massive consequences. They possess the potential to destroy one’s luck and maegen, to harm the mind, and (to resort for a moment to Theodish language) to make someone wretched in the eyes of the Holy Powers. That’s not the worst of it though. The worst part is that nefas is completely avoidable. Why? Because part of nefas is that we do it to ourselves.
At the core of nefas is choice, personal choice. It doesn’t just happen. There
is choice, conscious consideration, and conscious intent involved. There are no accidents with nefas, which is what makes it so truly abominable. To commit nefas,
a person really has to work at it. At its heart is the personal choice to spit in the face of the Divine Powers and ancestors, all They hold dear, and all one’s obligations to Them. It is beyond rendering oneself unclean. It is beyond generic ritual violation. Nefas is inextricably tied to a personal impiety on a massive scale, the type of thing
that corrodes the soul.
Now, we all make mistakes sometimes in life, in devotion, in ritual work. Sometimes our exhaustion, our anger, our disappointment, or other rough emotions get the better of us. That’s not nefas. It may lead to impiety that must later be corrected, but it’s not, in my opinion, nefas. I suppose that in time, left unchecked by any good sense or good counsel, it could lead to nefas, but that’s a different situation. So keep that in mind as you consider this concept. One really has to work at falling into nefas.
Over the past few months, this particular religious term has been cropping up now and again in the polytheistic circles wherein I roam. I’m probably partly to blame for that, but it’s a responsibility for which I’ll happily take the credit. This is a very important, perhaps vitally important concept. It’s something we should all understand, I think, and in our lives and devotional work, in our every day meanderings be vigilant against. Each and every one of us has the potential to fall into nefas. For just this reason, I’ve happily added this word to my religious lexicon. It’s a good word, a necessary one. Such infusions are occasionally necessary in this restoration of our indigenous traditions. Our religious worldview has been shaped by the very language we use, a language integrally impacted by 1500 plus years of monotheistic dominance. Even our orthographic conventions reflect this.(1) It’s a good and necessary thing to reclaim words for such important concepts, even if we have to look a little outside our own tradition to do so. Polytheism after all embraced such diversity. Do I think the Norse and Germanic tribes had a concept comparable to nefas, with the attendant vocabulary? Most certainly, but I don’t know what it was. So, in such a circumstance, the Latin nefas will do.
There’s a stark utilitarianism in the word too (it’s very Roman). Nefas is that which is not lawful. Period. So don’t do it. Be mindful. Be respectful. It’s not that difficult to avoid this taint. I think that being vigilant against falling into nefas, having it always at the back of one’s mind that there are some lines in our religious lives that ought not to be crossed out of respect for the Powers is a good thing. We can hone powerful personal characters on such awareness. Nefaswarns us to make good choices, healthy choices, positive choices. It warns us to take responsibility for our choices and our failings. It cautions against foisting the blame for our spiritual lives off on someone else. It teaches us to make the right choices within the web of devotions and obligations that are ours to maintain.
Some time ago in my Heathen Heretic column I wrote about a woman who had offended several Deities and whose life had fallen apart horribly as a result. That was nefas. (2) Our ancestors were not stupid. They knew that right relationship with the Powers was important and that it benefitted everyone/Everyone concerned. As
I write this, I was thinking “the Gods are there for us but there’s a limit to the crap They’ll put up with” but then I had to stop. That’s not it at all. That may or may not be true but it’s not nefas. The consequences of nefas aren’t punishments from on high, like the violation itself, they are that which we bring upon ourselves by our actions. That’s nefas, and that’s wyrd.
Of everything, the important thing to remember here is this: nefas is a choice.
It’s always a choice. I firmly believe we each have it within our capacity to make good choices. May the Gods and ancestors keep us all from nefas, now and always.
1. Note how even in scholarly works, only references to the monotheistic God are capitalized. While seemingly unimportant, it betrays a lack of respect for other Powers and I believe it has a subtle psychological impact on the reader. I make it a point to defy this convention for just that reason.
2. Someone just today asked me if the woman in that article had committed nefas, so I mention it here.