Modern Contemplation of the Runes: Wunjo

(1 comment)

WunjoJoy is for one who knows little of woe,
pains and sorrows, and to him who has
power and bliss and buildings good enough.

Continuing our series examining modern pagan practice via the Elder Futhark, we move on to the eighth rune, Wunjo. As with the others, the rune-poem above gives us a place to start.

Some of the modern interpretations of Wunjo also emphasize the joys that come from people coming together to create ecstasy. There are many elements to this kind of joy, from a good horn of mead to safety and comfort. One element of joy that seems most appropriate to discuss now is pagan sexual ethics, because this is a particular joining in ecstasy that can be surrounded by all sorts of challenges, and quite frankly there is no other rune that so closely matches the issue.

Warning: The rest of this post will mention (although not discuss in detail) non-consensual sexual relationships.

Ancient Pagan Sexual Ethics

A lot of modern pagans come into paganism with an understanding of ancient sexual practices more in line with the film Caligula than with actual fact. Specific sexual mores varied considerably by culture, but there were definitely boundaries around who could do what with whom, and the image of a non-stop sexual orgy every night would be thoroughly incorrect - most of the more lurid stories come from propaganda written by political enemies of the people involved. However, there was a wide variety of sexual relationships ranging from the consensual to the completely exploitative:

Homosexual Relations: As best as we can tell, both men and women had not-infrequent same-sex relations. Some of the more celebrated written works, such as Plato's Symposium, Petronius' Satyricon, and the poetry of Sappho contain numerous expressions of clear same-sex interest. It should be mentioned that in some societies, men pursuing women was seen as a bit unmanly, and the pressure was towards men pursuing relations with other men or more often boys. Free men fulfilled their marital duties, and enjoyed female prostitutes as well, but there was a distinct sense in some of the literature that many men did not find their most important relationships with women.

Marital Relations: Marriages were mostly arranged, at least among the elite. Women were frequently married quite young, around age 13-15. In cultures where we have clear records, such as Greece and Rome, it seems that married women were strictly supposed to be with their husbands (vitally important for any society with patrilineal inheritance), while husbands had a responsibility to impregnate their wives. In other cultures, while there was perhaps more freedom for women, in general there is an assumption that married women only had relations with their husbands.

Extramarital Relations: Some societies may have practiced a degree of "swinging" or sexual hospitality in which guests were offered sex with the wife of their host. It is also entirely possible that orgies happened, although in many cases these would be with slaves or prostitutes.

Ritual Sex: There is some evidence for sex being performed as part of religious ritual, typically focused around situations where a champion or new king was claiming sovereignty over the land.

Prostitution: All societies for which we have records, and significant archaeological evidence, suggests that prostitution was extremely common and completely accepted in ancient society. This ranged from formal temple prostitution in Mesopotamia to commercial enterprises in Pompeii. Prostitutes were frequently enslaved, and included women, girls, and boys.

Slaves: The majority of the population in many ancient societies were enslaved to some degree, and some of the duties of the slaves could involve sexual services. Even in societies where that sort of behavior was frowned upon, a master or mistress could demand those kinds of services from their slaves and there would be nobody at all to stop them from effectively raping their slaves.

War Rape: Throughout history, raping the inhabitants of conquered territory has been part of warfare. Ancient pagan societies were no exception.

The one thing these all have in common: Women and children rarely if ever had much control over who they were having sex with. Sex was more a matter of domination than of love or even lust on both sides, and consent was completely optional. Suffice to say this is decidedly not the sexual ethics of modern times.

Christian Sexual Ethics

With the coming of Christianity comes a new set of rules. Christian morality, when fully instituted, banned homosexual relations and extramarital relations. Slavery was replaced by serfdom, and while there were cases of nobles abusing peasant women and later bosses abusing their workers, that wasn't the norm by any stretch of the imagination. Prostitution was also now frowned upon although frequently tolerated. That left marriages, war rape, and illicit activity as the only outlets. Depending on the degree of control the Christian religious authorities had, any other activity could be quite severely punished.

The most strict versions of Christianity demanded celibacy for those engaged with religious work, and demanded that sexual activity be only for procreation rather than enjoyment, even within the context of a marriage. While these rules certainly were not completely followed, the fact that this sort of strictness was even considered is quite telling.

Again, of course, women had little formal control over much of this. Arranged marriages were still quite common, and since women were often economically dependent on men, they had little choice but to seek marriage, regardless of the quality of available partners or actual interest in marrying. Addendum: After publication, it was pointed out to me that in the 1200's CE there was an important concept introduced, namely that women themselves would now have to agree to marriage proposals in order for them to be legal. I apologize for this significant omission.

Early Neopagan Sexual Ethics

Early neopagans were in part motivated by a desire to revolt against the many rules imposed by Christian control, and that included the rules surrounding sex. Attempts to incorporate sex into ritual were included early on, and extramarital sex for those kinds of purposes was no longer taboo. As paganism moved to the United States and began to take root in the left-wing circles of the 1960's, it is no surprise that what accompanied the neopagan movement was a religious acceptance of "free love" and sexual expression of all kinds. With the rise of feminism, women started enjoying sexual autonomy in a way that they hadn't, really, for all of recorded history. And beginning with the Stonewall Riot, LGBT relations also were no longer as taboo. Enmeshed in this culture, neopaganism gave religious sanction to all kinds of sexual expression in a pattern more similar to the imagined freedom of the ancients than actual ancient practices.

There was a dark side to this new-found sexual freedom, though: Those who did not want to engage sexually with many others were sometimes shamed for their prudery or threatened with such shaming in order to bed the reluctant. Those that wanted to take advantage of naive young people would convince them that sexual initiation was a standard procedure. There were even some that advocated sexual activity involving children around the age of puberty, including pairing pre-teens with adults. These kinds of abuses were by no means universal, but common enough that they were (and occasionally still are) serious problems.

Where Things Stand Now

Pagan sexual ethics nowadays comes down to a few basic principles: Free choice, integrity, safety, hospitality, and fun.

Free Choice

Modern pagan thinking affirms the importance of personal choices, including choices about sex. This right of decision applies to everybody regardless of gender identity, gender expression, physical sex, or sexual orientation/preference. Conveniently, this also matches up nicely with the law in Western democratic nations, and creates rules like these:

  • Consent. Consent. Consent. Everyone involved in sexual activity must freely choose to participate. No ifs, ands or buts. No pressure. This is a "yes means yes" kind of consent, where everyone involved wants to be involved, not merely a "no means no" kind of consent where some of those involved are tolerating what is happening rather than choosing what is happening.
  • No taking advantage of impairment due to mind-altering chemicals. Someone who is extremely drunk or is high on something that impairs judgment should be taken care of by people they know and trust to be safely put to sleep, not dragged into sexual activity they didn't consent to when they were sober.
  • No taking advantage of power differences. An adult is more powerful than a child or teenager, and a teenager more powerful than a child. A highly respected group leader is more powerful than a new member of the group. A boss is more powerful than a subordinate. The reason for this is simply that whoever is in the less powerful position may feel like the other relationship prevents them from refusing consent, which means they don't really consent.
  • No immediate family members. Do we really need to go into this one beyond referring people to Oedipus Rex? Uncles and aunts also run into the "taking advantage of power differences" rules.
  • No judging other people for deciding differently than you would about their sexual activity. Part of making sexual activity a free choice is ensuring that there are no social stigmas associated with those choices. And that goes in both directions: calling somebody a "slut" or "whore" or "man-whore" is wrong, calling somebody a "prude" is also wrong.


For your word of honor to have any power, it must be something you follow. While you might not have made binding oaths, you should be clearly sticking to things you have promised. And that includes:

  • If you promised sexual exclusivity to somebody (e.g. a spouse), and you want to engage with somebody else, you either need to (A) stick to that promise and not do what you wanted, (B) negotiate a new agreement with that somebody, or (C) break of the relationship with that somebody.
  • If you and a prospective partner discussed wanting to do act A, but your partner also specified that they did not want to do act B, don't try to make them change their mind about act B in the middle of things.
  • It is wise to have some discussion in advance about boundaries and limits, rather than assuming or trying to guess. Those in D/s relationships often put a special emphasis on this process, but it is often just as important in more vanilla relationships to know what the expectations are. Even things like "Is this intended as a one-night stand, or the beginning of a long-term relationship?" are worth answering before rather than after sexual involvement. If you are not comfortable talking about doing something with the someone(s) you are going to do it with, you probably should not be doing it.


Stay safe. Pagan ethics generally affirm the value of life in general, and that includes your life and the lives of anybody you are having relations with. So don't lose or ruin it in a moment of stupidity, and make sure you:

  • Get yourself tested and treated for diseases.
  • Take precautions against undesired pregnancy.
  • Especially in a short-term relationship, take precautions against spreading diseases using barrier methods where appropriate.

It is also worth mentioning that pagan ethics do not demand that all pregnancies result in a born child, and that morning-after pills and abortion are generally considered acceptable options if something goes wrong in that regard.


Pagan morality generally affirms the importance of being a proper guest and host. As a host, you need to take good care of your guests. As a guest, you need to minimize your imposition on your host and the other guests. And that means:

  • Clean up the space after you are done. If you are a guest, this is about minimizing the work your host has to do after you leave. If this is your own space, then this is making the space you just used a comfortable place for guests. A hot session in your kitchen is just fine, so long as you make sure that's not what everyone is seeing and smelling when you invite them over for dinner.
  • Clean yourself up afterword, especially before entering any kind of sacred space or time. This was an important concept among ancient cultures - sexual activity meant you had a ritual impurity until you cleaned yourself up and purified yourself with various treatments. To do otherwise is to be an improper guest for the sacred beings you are going to visit in the sacred space.
  • Use a location that's at least somewhat private, unless it's the kind of environment that explicitly encourages otherwise. This is to minimize your imposition on the other guests who are not involved.


Last but certainly not least, feel free enjoy yourself! Pagan ethics affirm the value of life and joy and ecstasy as exemplified by Wunjo. If you've followed all the rules above, there's absolutely no reason not to enjoy sexual activity, whether in the context of a committed ongoing relationship or just a consensual one-night fling. Enjoying the pleasures of ones' body is not to be a source of guilt or shame, and joining together with others to bring pleasure to each other is to be celebrated, not shunned. Whether you are alone, with 1 other person, or in a group setting, the joy of sex is part of why people enjoy being alive.

Current rating: 4.7


Hobbes 2 years, 8 months ago

All excellent points!

Link | Reply
Current rating: 5

New Comment


required (not published)