Norns under Yggdrasil by L B Hansen
Welcome to the March, and my final, article for ‘The Pagan and the Pen’.
The topic this month is the ‘Web of Wyrd’, rather fitting I think. You will see what I mean as we go on. Today, I’ve asked Austin “Auz” Lawrence to give his comments on what the ‘Web of Wyrd’ is, but first, a little about Auz.
‘Austin Lawrence is active in the Pagan community of Ontario, Canada. He has worn a hammer continuously for the last 14 years. Austin is a civil servant with a Master’s degree in Anthropology. He is a member of the American Vinland Association and is an oathed goði, who serves sometimes as a Heathen officiate for rites of passage, an advisor to seekers on resources and lore, a counsellor to friends in local kindreds, but mainly as a land steward for sacred space and as a facilitator of gatherings. Austin is one of the coordinators of Canada’s largest Pagan gatherings, the Kaleidoscope Gathering. He is also a steward of Raven’s Knoll, a campground at which Pagan and Heathen gatherings are held, where sacred sites have been established for the use of our community.’
Hail to you.
In Heathenry, concepts of fate and predestination are complex and varied. In the modern context, as probably in the ancient world, there are many different opinions on the subject and much misunderstanding. Edain has invited me to provide you with a few words introducing to you how I view the concept of wyrd.
The Word Wyrd
The word wyrd is a noun in Old English from the verb weorþan, which means “to become.” In Old Norse the term is urðr. The term harkens back to a common root word in all Germanic languages, and has been reconstructed as the Proto-Indo-European root *wert– “to turn, rotate.” It is associated with the Old English weorþ, with the meaning of “worth” in the sense of “value, amount due” as well as “honour, earned esteem.”
The single concept of wyrd was the main focus of most writing in the Anglo-Saxon regarding fate, likely because it was appropriated and re-defined to more closely match Christian theology after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. Wyrd is also the most basic concept of fate that is elaborated in Scandinavian belief through a more mythologically complex understanding of fate.
In the Old Norse tradition, there are three mythological women that personify fate. In Gylfaginning 14, Snorri Sturluson,* writes: “Under the ash near the spring stands a beautiful hall; three maidens come out of this hall whose names are Urd, Verdandi, and Skul; these maidens determine the life of men; we call them norns.”
The names of the three Norns are often roughly translated as Past, Present, and Future. However, their true nature differs in important ways from a common understanding in modern English. From the verb verða (to be), comes the name Urðr for “became” and Verdandi for “becoming,” as well as Skuld with the sense of “shall be, intended, debt owed.”
The action of the laws of fate that the Norns embody is portrayed through the metaphor of women continuously weaving in passages of the Völuspá, and throughout skaldic literature and later folklore. It is by weaving that the Norns lay down ørlǫg. The term comes from the word ór with the sense of “out, from, beyond” and “primal, ancient” combined with the word lǫg with the meaning of “law” and the sense of “layers, precedent.” Ørlǫg is both a process of becoming and a completed thing. (In Anglo-Saxon contexts often the term wyrd comes to stand for some combination of ørlǫg and urðr.)
The Norns are not known to be related to either the Æsir gods or the adversaries of the Gods the jotunar. Nor do any clear accounts of their origin exist. The Norns personify time and action, yet they exist outside of time. Even the most powerful of the Norse gods, Óðinn – he who rules the home of the gods in Asgarð and created the world from the jotun Ymir’s body – will eventually die because of the course of events. The forces of fate that the Norns embody, apply to everyone; even a god that gave shape to the world we live in. As one Old English poem states it: “Wyrd bið ful aræd.” (Wyrd remains completely inexorable.)
Time, Wyrd and Ethics
In modern English, concepts of fate and predestination are terms with roots in the Romance languages, often now infected with Christian theology. In Romance languages past tenses are conjugated as compounds, while future tenses are single word conjugations. In Germanic languages, the past tense is a single word conjugation, while the future is a compound conjugation. Bauschatz observes that this distinction embodies a fundamental difference in how fate is viewed in the two worldviews. In essence, the Germanic worldview weights ‘fixed reality’ to the past, while Romance language cultures weight ‘fixed reality’ to the future.
The way I see it, everything that I am physically (human evolution, the genetic happenstance of my family tree) and mentally (ideas learned through culture, education, being socialized in a family, psychological reactions to life events) is the result of the past. Although a product of the past that is more than me, I am still a unique being with my own free will. This free will, however, is constrained by all that I am and all that I encounter in my life. All of which is the product of the past. But, part of ørlǫg is our unique decisions. As we act, so the Norns do weave.
I personally experience the Heathen view of fate in this way: We live in an eternal present that is the sum of all past action. The past very clearly and definitely exists and cannot be changed, as it is the basis for all reality, what our consciousness views as “right now.” The past cannot be changed. The future, however, is not fixed. (Nor, does it actually ever arrive since it is always “today.”) But, the future is predetermined in a manner. The future is constrained by what has occurred in the past, since action in the past is constrained by that “which is,” the wyrd that gives form to all present reality and options. Due to wyrd things are bound to happen.
There are deeper mysteries and philosophical implications to the Heathen view of fate than anything I have presented here. It is all rather wyrd and confusing, but life is like that! What Heathens tend to focus on is trying to embody what they believe is good character in their action, the virtues, since this is what our tradition teaches is the best way to meet the debt that past action has determined is owed. At the least, as strophe 23 in the Hávamál reminds us, there is no use staying awake at night worrying about the past. It is better not to worry, get some sleep, and in the morning meet the day as the best person you can be and do something about whatever might be troubling you.
Heilir þeirs hlýddu!
Austin “Auz” Lawrence
* Snorri Sturluson was a 12th century Icelandic politician, poet and antiquarian who wrote down a vast body of pre-Christian Scandinavian lore and myth in what has come to be known as “The Prose Edda.”
- The Oxford English Dictionary.
- The Poetic Edda.
- Bauschatz. The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture
- Mitchell and Robinson. A Guide to Old English.
- Simek. Dictionary of Northern Mythology.
- Sturluson. The Prose Edda.
- Zoëga. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic.
A huge thank you to my special guest, Auz, for taking the time to share his thoughts. His description and interpretation of the Web of Wyrd is excellent, in my opinion.
Well, I hope you have enjoyed the twelve glimpses into Heathen life during the past year. I’d promised to write articles for one year and then to re-evaluate my time, as I knew many of my writing and publishing projects would be coming to a head after that year. As predicted, my projects are rapidly moving into the fast lane and I will no longer have the time to donate to this column. A huge thank you to the owner and writers of The Pagan and Pen for allowing me to ramble on for this last year and for the excellent company along the way. 🙂
I wish you all peaceful and safe travels along your strands of the Web and hope the Norns give you a wonderful and interesting life.
Blessings to your Hearth,
Paranormal/Fantasy Novelist, Best Selling eBook Author and Award Winning Blog Writer.
Author of the blogs:
English, Pagan and in Canada
Gramarye, The Magical Homestead