If a chap in a chivalric or mythic tale announces that his honour has been damaged in some way, you know there’s going to be a duel or other violence. His honour may have been damaged because he didn’t get the right cut of meat at the feast, or someone suggested his wife is not the prettiest woman in the history of the world. The speed of his horse may have been questioned, or some more obscure personal pride thing that no sensible person could have seen coming. And then, so that honour can be satisfied, pain must be inflicted, maybe even death. It’s a way of thinking about honour that has never made much sense to me.
For women, honour is usually framed in such stories as being all about not having sex, or only having sex with the man you are married to. The woman who has sex forced upon her is deemed dishonoured in such tales – she does not get to fight a duel with the perpetrator. She may only be able to redeem herself through suicide. Men in her life are entitled to get angry and kill people – her included. Women who have affairs, or love people other than the person they were forced to marry do not get a good deal, often. Although Queen Medb of Connacht with her friendly thighs does better than most in this regard. Women in such stories do not get to regain their honour by killing the person who dishonoured them.
Ten years ago and more, honour was a popular term in Druidry, especially around the Druid Network. In that context, it didn’t mean taking offence and getting into fights – although that happened too! This is the idea of honour as a heroic virtue available to people regardless of gender, and as something you hold within yourself, not something people can take from you by saying you don’t have the best horse. Honour is a personal code, and as such, how one person’s honour works may make no sense to the next person.
For me, it means the place where I dig in. The point at which I will sacrifice something in my interests for the sake of a principle. It’s the lines I won’t cross, no matter how great the temptation. I have a lot of grey areas and points of flexibility because while I prefer not to lie (for example) I wouldn’t compromise some innocent person’s safety or wellbeing for the sake of speaking the truth. My sense of what’s honourable often depends a lot on the context. My relationship with the natural world is one where I think a lot about what’s honourable, but I can’t always act with perfect honour, often because I’m compromised by not being able to afford the best options. There are things about how I work and what I think is honourable there that contributes to not being able to afford to live with perfect honour in other regards.
It depends so much on what you think matters. Personal honour can be a very private thing, needing no recognition or anything else from anyone else. Or it can be all about holding up a perception of yourself in which honour needs defending from criticism, and it’s worth killing or dying over a joke or a badly spoken word or someone getting laid. If you know you’ve acted honourably, no one can take that from you. If your honour is all about your public image, it’s really vulnerable. There are so many stories in which rulers are offended because someone lets on they aren’t as good as they think they are – if the illusion of your honour is dearer than truth… it doesn’t seem much like honour at all to me.