In Nordic cultures, honor meant much more than dignity or respect. It determined a man’s credibility and dictated the level of respect he would receive. It defined a man’s reputation, which, in turn, determined how much property he could own. All Norsemen were born into a status, not unlike a caste system where they remained until they proved their honor and earned their rights through accomplishments on raids, exploration, and profit gained — or stolen.
When a Norseman came of age, he sought his honor. He needed his honor or would not gain rights to farm, own land, or marry. To have honor was to have everything. To lose honor was to lose all rights to own property and their mate. They would lose the protection of the law, and the right to assemble in the annual Thing. Above all, they would lose their moral standing in which to swear by. A man not worth his word, was a Niðingr — a Nothing.
A Niðingr was much less than the lowest class in the social system. It meant elimination from the system completely. One could raise a hand and deem a man a Niðingr. To do so was to strip him of his title, his wife, his land, and the law. Because it was such a high offense at such a great cost, there were laws that permitted a man to defend his honor if someone falsely accused him of being a Niðingr. He had the right to challenge the accuser to the death in a duel called a Hólmganga. If a man lost and survived a duel, he walked away a Niðingr. If a participant failed to arrive to a duel, the law automatically declared him a Niðingr.
The dishonorable status itself was Nið or Outlawry, which literally meant, “to be outside the law”. Depending on the crime committed, the sentence could last for six months, a year, or a lifetime. A Niðingr lived without the oppression of laws, but at a cost: the law, in turn, did not protect him. Because a Niðingr could kill without consequence, citizens viewed a Niðingr as dangerous and believed killing a Niðingr was honorable. Warriors in need of their honor often hunted Niðingr. For this reason, to be ordained a Niðingr was a death sentence. Most of those deemed Niðingr, did not last six months.
If a Niðingr could survive his sentence, he was welcomed back into society at the lowest order. In some cases, he could never regain his honor. Only one other word held as great a threat to a Norseman as Nidingr. Coward.