By Dr Jenny Blain
Originally published at Lughnasa 2002
I've been asked to write something about Wyrd, for this issue - on Wyrd, the eldest norn, or all norns, fate, destiny, Wyrd being the English form of the word which in Old Icelandic ('Old Norse') is Urðr, pronounced approximately 'Oo-rrth', with the 'oo' long, the rr rolled, and the 'th' as in 'then'. For many of today's Heathens, Wyrd is more than fate - it is not predestined, although it includes the concept of personal ørlög, 'ur-lay' according to Heathen scholar Kveldúlfr Gundarsson, oldest layer of what goes to make up a person's capacity and obligation. Think here in terms of strata, layers of earth being deposited in a river bed: so in Heathenry a person's life is formed of many layers, not least the oldest layer of obligation from the past. Whether you think of it as 'past lives', as ancestral bonds formed and reformed into personal obligation, or as simply who your parents got on with and whether you're embroiled in a family feud as a result - or obligated to visit your grandparents' neighbours at New Year because they expect it of you - is not really important as long as there is that concept of the oldest layer, come from the past, becoming part of what you do, think, say. People make history, though not just how they please, and so the nightmare hand of the past, a great scholar once said, weighs on the consciousnesses of those now living: While this was written in a very different context from that of today's Heathenry, it seems to me to reflect the knowledge of Wyrd.
So, let's attempt, first, an introduction to Wyrd as a concept, and Urðr as a Norn - together with her sisters Verðandi and Skuld. I'll make plain, right away, that some of what follows will be replicating what's in my little booklet Understanding Wyrd: the Norns and the Tree, though the booklet includes also some material about the nine worlds, and some ritual work which is omitted here. For more detail specifically on Wyrd as obligation I'll refer you to the webpages of Arlea Hunt-Anschutz on 'What is Wyrd?' at http://www.anglo-saxon.demon.co.uk/lyfja/ghp/handbook/whatwyrd.html, and if you can get hold of it, the 'classic' discussion of Wyrd is in Paul Baschutz's The Well and the Tree, now, alas out of print although copies pop up in second-hand bookshops from time to time.
What follows is my personal understanding of Wyrd, and how it connects, today, with our lives and our communities.
The Tree and its Wells
Northern cosmology has as its basis the concept of the great Tree Yggdrasill, whose branches support the nine worlds: and the Wyrd to which all beings, and the worlds themselves, are subject.
Yggdrasill is described sometimes as an ash tree, sometimes as a yew (or 'needle-ash'). Today's Heathens look to one or the other as its representative. But Yggdrasill itself is more than one tree, or all trees. Some heathens speculate that it may have been represented among the Saxons on the continent by the Great Pillar, the Irminsul, cut down in 772 C.E. by Charlemagne during the process of christianisation. Whether as an oak in central Europe, an ash or yew in southern Scandinavia and in Britain (look at the oldest yew that you know, see its flaking bark and its twisted branches), a birch in northern Scandinavia, it may be whatever tree represents the growth and age of the area, suited to soil type and climate. The concept of a central pillar or Word Tree is familiar in many shamanic cosmologies, and certainly Yggdrasill appears as such in its descriptions in mediaeval literature: not simply a tree, but a living pathway connecting worlds.
The poem Völuspá (the Speaking of the Seeress) from the Poetic Edda describes it thus:
An Ash I know standing, called Yggdrasill
The World tree is described in the Eddic poem Grimismál (the Sayings of Grimnir, a name for Óðinn) as having three great roots, which end within the realms of Ásgard, Jotunheim, and Nifelheim: confusing, if the Tree also supports on its branches all the nine worlds as described by Snorri Sturluson. Below the roots dwells the wyrm Nidhöggr, who gnaws the underside of the lowest roots. Nidhöggr is also described as the one who flies to snatch bodies to devour. This lowest root spreads above the well Hvergelmir, from which many rivers flow.
Beneath the root of Jotunheim is the well of wisdom, guarded by the wise Etin Mímir. For one draft of the waters of that well, and their knowledge, Ó>inn gave an eye. Völuspá tells us:
All I know, Óðinn, where you left your eye
The third root, and its well, is in Ásgard, the Ases Garth, where the Gods and Goddesses have their home. At this well-spring the Aesir meet in council, and it is there that their most important decisions are taken, witnessed by the Guardians of Urðarbrunnr, the Well of Wyrd, who are the Norns: Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld. All that has been, all that is becoming, and all that should become, including all the obligations of people and god/desses, lies within Urðarbrunnr.
The image that I work with, and that seems attested by the lore (at least according to Bauschatz and other scholars) is of a microcosm that is also macrocosm. The tree stands spreading above a pool - here setting aside the triplicity, reducing the three wells back to one, Urðarbrunnr, Wyrd's well. Roots draw in the water, sap rises through the tree, and eventually beads of moisture appear on the tips of the needles/leaves, and fall, dew-like, into the valley. Some return to the well, some to the earth at the tree's roots. Some, says Bauschatz, falls outside the drainage area of the pool, and may be lost to the system, while other moisture enters the system from outside, but mostly it is self-generating: and it includes those Norns who sit by the tree.
The three Norns are not simply 'Past, Present and Future': While Ur>r, the eldest, implies all that has gone before, Verðandi implies the process by which Past and its bonds and connections shape the Being that is now, and Skuld, the youngest, appears more related to the obligations that exist between people, which they must fulfil, than she does to any precise prediction of absolute 'future'. Her name, Skuld, has the meaning of 'obligation' - it is from a helper-verb similar to the English 'should'. Together they can be seen as the shaping forces of destiny, obligation, constraint, fate, Wyrd; and their Well contains all the words that are spoken, the promises that are made, the obligations that must be upheld, the ways in which people, and other beings, bind themselves into the fabric of life, or are so bound by others: and all the potential that is inherent in those words, those promises, those obligations, the ideas that spring from the minds and hearts of all beings.
From there come maidens, greatly knowing
'Wyrd' is the English form of 'Urðr' . Arlea Hunt-Anschutz - in that website I referred you to earlier - says that
The Anglo-Saxon noun wyrd is derived from a verb, weorðan, 'to become', which, in turn, is derived from an Indo-European root *uert- meaning 'to turn'. Wyrd literally means 'that which has turned' or 'that which has become'.
I like this idea of 'turning'. It holds all the sense of movement, change, transformation that I've endeavoured to suggest so far - that lives are not fixed, but created and manipulated, and that people by what they do, building on what has gone before, shape what comes next, the turnings of their own lives. But, as previously mentioned, they do not do so just as they please.
The Norns and Ørlög
I have seen and heard arguments as to whether the Norns 'actually' spin or weave! The evidence of the poem Völuspá is that they carve on slips of wood (carve runes, maybe? the poem doesn't say). But we are not speaking of human women - rather, attempting to translate processes connecting life and death, people, human and non-human relationships, society and landscape, into metaphors that enable us to think about the unimaginable, to conceptualise that which is too big, too vast to be conceptualised. In the first Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, Norns twist or spin the ørlög-threads of the infant Helgi, and appear to fasten the strands to the sky, and to the land, north, east and west, which holds an implication of the fate of child and land as connected. The weaving metaphor is used in Njáls Saga - one of the most famous of the great stories written in the middle ages in Iceland - but those weaving are not the three great Norns, but Valkyries who are creating the course of the battle of Clontarf with their work. Here the fabric tells the tale of battle, and valkyries are described as weaving 'with drawn swords' and arrows for shuttles, where the loom, strung with human entrails, is weighted with heads, and the heddle-rods are bloody spears. This is fantastic imagery, equal to anything from today's visual imagery, given for a shocking purpose, telling of a battle in which many Icelanders and their friends were involved (on both sides - for this was no simple 'Celt versus Viking' struggle according to either Irish or Icelandic sources). Still today for many of us today within Heathenism, the concept of spinning and weaving 'fate' is one that makes absolute sense. However that may be, what the Norns do has a particularly Northern 'spin' to it: the three Norns measure out the lifespan of each person, and they include within it the potential that is inherent in each one - the diverse skills, talents, or genius; together with the obligations that are inherited from past generations, or maybe past lives. So a person is born with ørlög.
It is not clear in the old material to what extent the Norns shape wyrd rather than reflect it. Völuspá says that they set down laws, and select lives for people. It is however clear that while wyrd can be modified, postponed, even altered by subsequent events, it can never be totally escaped. Even the High Goddesses and Gods of the Aesir and Vanir, are subject to wyrd.
In a sideline, here, I should mention that not only the great Three are referred to as 'norns'. Others who, at birth, confer blessings or at least fates, are 'norns' likewise. Remember Sleeping Beauty, anyone? Although I've just said that it's not clear to what extent Norns shape wyrd, there may be specific times when personal ørlög is more easily influenced or shaped, times - such as the birth of Helgi, referred to above - when the norns spin ørlog from whatever material is to hand. While ørlög or wyrd is dynamic, not 'carved in stone', changing a 'gifted' wyrd is not easily done. I've seen pagan 'child namings' in which 'all present' are invited to give the baby a gift of future, skill or fate. My reaction is that those doing this may have read little mythology or few folk-tales: please don't do this to your baby!
In the short story (Thattr) of Norna-Gest, the youngest of three women invited to the naming of a baby felt slighted by the attention paid to her - and said that the baby's life would last only as long as the candle now burning. The senior Norn went to his mother and advised her to blow out, and preserve the candle. Three hundred years later, Norna-Gest told the story and presented the candle to king Olaf Tryggvason, who lit the candle, and as it burned so Norna-Gest expired, according to the story.
There may be other situations in which personal ørlög, or community wyrd, can be influenced or shaped. In the saga of Arrow-Odd - a late-mediaeval telling of a fantastic story of 'the past' (yes, they did that too!) - it is told that a seeress (seiðkona, according to the story) prophesised a future for Odd, in which he would die from a wound from his own horse. He had the horse killed and buried, and lived for 300 years, with many adventures as one would expect - and on returning, had the horse's skull dug up and gloated over it: but a scratch from a tooth in the skull proved his death.
Ørlög represents a personal weaving of wyrd, shaped by the actions of the Norns, modified by the individual and community, and interwoven with the ørlög of others. Among those 'others' are the Elder Kin, the Goddesses and Gods of the North. They also have ørlög, and they deal with it often through interactions with people. The Elder Kin are not creators, in the sense of creating the Universe out of nothing at all. They have, in the old stories, given shape and being to people and to the Earth, but even there they are themselves a 'creation' - or better, an evolution, a becoming, and indeed their evolution continues through the Northern cultures with which they were associated, into the present day, and beyond. They deal with the long term, and with the history and fate of Midgard, the world on which we live; and they change along with that with which they deal.
So, the Elder Kin interact with Wyrd on the long term, and their council place is by the Norns' well. They deal also with human ørlög, where this intersects their own Wyrd. Thus, we address or petition them, involve them in our doings, talk with them and ask their blessings on what we do in our daily lives. Likewise, the Elder Kin involve us in their own destinies and the wyrd of the worlds. But although the Norns shape, or direct, fate, we do not usually address or petition them, or involve them in workings of magic: the Norns do what they do, what they must do. They are implacable. At times we ask that our words be heard, as words, statements of fact or of intent, as part of the fabric of wyrd, as ideas that will become part of the well. This is particularly the case during the ritual known as sumbel, where Heathens ask Norns and deities to witness our statements.
It is here that people state what has been and what is in process of formation. Within sumbel, participants give honour to the Elder Kin and to other beings, notably ancestors, heroines, heroes, but including if they wish wights of land or home, alfs or dwarves. We honour also ourselves, our own actions (where we feel these to be honourable), and those of our kin and friends. Sumbel involves ritualised toasting, the passing of a horn of liquid which represents the Well of Wyrd. In sumbel, the one who holds the horn has the floor, and that person's words become part of the Well.
For many of today's Heathens, a sumbel will usually have three rounds. The first is to the Gods, the second to those who have gone before - ancestors, heroes and heroines, and the third for what we will, usually what we have ourselves recently completed or what we intend to do. However sumbels can and do develop other rounds at need.
Yggdrasill, runes and sei>r
The Tree grows from its three great roots. It has no creation: it simply is. The tree appears in the mythology, supporting the worlds on its branches, and according to Vafthrúdnismál (another of the poems of the Poetic Edda), after Ragnarok two humans, Líf and Lífthrasir, descend from its branches where they have hidden throughout the catastrophe. But though it appears everlasting, it is under constant attack. Below it, the wyrm Nidhöggr gnaws at the lowest roots; according to Grímnismál many serpents do likewise. Four harts (deer) crane their necks to eat the young shoots of the high branches. The sides of the tree decay, and the tree suffers many pains, though it is tended by the Norns.
At the top sits a great eagle, with between its brows another bird, a hawk. Up and down the trunk runs the squirrel Ratatosk, which carries gossip - and insults - between the eagle and Nidhöggr.
The association with wisdom persists through all the accounts of the Tree. Each well holds its powers. Sometimes the three wells become one, Hvergelmir. The name, Yggdrasill, may be yet another link with knowledge, for the name means 'The steed of Yggr', where 'Yggr' is the Terrible One, one of the names of Ó>inn. It is likely that the name refers to an episode known through a passage from the poem Hávamál (from the Poetic Edda).
I know I hung on the windy tree,
No loaf gave they me, nor drinking horn
The speaker is Óðinn, who underwent the ordeal of hanging on the tree. Through this means he gained knowledge of the runes. The word 'rune' means a hidden thing, a secret, an idea of power. The passage does not suggest that the 'runes' were created by Yggr, but that he discovered them, as secrets of power. These 'runes' are not necessarily the shapes that we know today by that name, though it is possible that today's rune-staves represent the ideas that our ancestors considered to be those that Óðinn found. It's usually considered that the Tree on which the god offered himself to himself (as god of both knowledge and death) was Yggdrasill, the World Tree, the source of wyrd and of wisdom: thus connecting Óðinn, and runes, with the tree. There are implications here about rune-magic: there are further implications about seiðr-magic, which Óðinn likewise performs, connected with the concept of the tree as a shamanic world tree or pole, connecting the realms of being and their inhabitants. The tree can also be seen as connecting the innermost attributes of an individual, and I regard the rune Eihwaz (or Eoh), the Yew Tree, in both these lights, enabling shifts of consciousness between worlds, and connections with my own attributes and desires.
What are these implications? Well, it seems to me that both rune-magic and seið-magic deal with wyrd, in different ways. In each case, though, they can tap into the flow of wyrd, as divination, or can be actively used to transform wyrd: though it needs to be remembered that attempts to change wyrd are subject to the manipulation of others also. There is little evidence for rune-divination, as we know it today, in the lore - Tacitus describes throwing lots made from slips of fruit-tree wood, but we don't know what was written on those - but considerably more dealing with use of runes in other ways. Egill Skalla-grímsson, poet, farmer and warrior, is one of whom we have accounts of rune-mastery. For instance, suspecting that a drink might be less than favourable to his health, he drew runes on drinking horn, then cut his hand to redden them with his blood - upon which the horn burst apart and the poisoned ale flowed out onto the straw. In a very different circumstance, he healed the very ill daughter of a farmer friend, by finding a piece of whalebone carved with runes, hidden below her bed, scraping the whalebone to remove these, then burning the whalebone, and carving another with runes to bring health - with a comment in poetry that those who attempted to use with runes had better know what they were doing. (The initial runes had been carved by a neighbour's son with intent to make the young woman love him, but instead nearly effected her death). For dealing with rune-magic, then, 'intent' is not enough: for Egill at least, runes had meaning independent of the intentions of the carver, tapping into the relationship between Óðinn, the tree, and wyrd, hence instruments of wyrd.
In dealing briefly with seiðr, I'll return to the spinning/weaving metaphor. Some practitioners have spoken of seeing strands of wyrd, and using these for various purposes: including most often 'seeing along' a strand to what possibilities are inherent in a situation, and what obligations have been woven from the interactive threads of people's lives. At other times, people have spoken of seeing the twisting of specific threads, viewed as yarn, as thin gold wires, even as twisting plant stems. To pursue the metaphor further, seiðr in the past may have involved reaching out to touch the threads, altering reality, a process fraught with many problems as a tiny touch of the fabric of wyrd can have astounding repercussions. One seeress today has described the fabric as a three-dimensional blanket in which the threads are themselves constantly moving and changing - and for her, Óðinn, or Woden, can shake this blanket so that a ripple effect of change spreads throughout - but we can only touch a small corner.
Workings of Wyrd
So, to finish off this rather rambling article, I'll suggest once again that people who are interested in the concept of Wyrd should look at some of the sources I've referenced - notably the Eddas, Bauschatz if you can get hold of his book, and various sagas. The latter are particularly interesting. They were composed after christianisation (though incorporating older tales and poems), but often bear the sense of wyrd, obligation, working itself out within the story of what unfolds: actions, words, contracts or bargains set in motion a train of events that involve increasing numbers of people, particularly notable in Njáls Saga and Laxdæla Saga. Those people are creating their own destinies, weaving their own wyrd - but not alone. Also, the heroic poems of the Poetic Edda hold the same sense of dealing with wyrd that becomes inevitable from the interaction of personal attributes and confused human actions. Some of the mythological poems deal with the wyrd of the Elder Kin and the seeress's prophecy of Ragnarok. This returns us to the concept of knowing wyrd, and 'working with wyrd'.
There are times when each of us feels embattled, with the worlds against us and everything going pear-shaped. There are other times when the flow of life around us is smooth: and there are still others when life can be immensely problematic, often challenging rather than not; but with solutions that become available, when a small action on our part, a decision, a change, combines with those of others to produce something that works, that transforms our surroundings or situations. Dealing magically with wyrd is not so much a question of 'spells', but of trying to see what possibilities exist and what the implications of actions may be, and hence how we can move with the flow, become part of the energy that surrounds a situation, and hence take the issues and concern that most closely interest us, a stage further. To work with wyrd is to experience a flow that moves through you, in which you are knowingly positioned within the woven tapestry. While we cannot know all events that result from our actions, working with wyrd therefore involves examining the situation and its potential, and attempting to sense that flow.
With the concept of 'flow', I'm returning, somewhat, to that other metaphor for wyrd that I used when talking about Yggdrasill. The tree stands above the pool, and moisture rises through the tree to fall from its branches and eventually return to the pool. The flow of that moisture, water moving in streams and rivers, can be turbulent or smooth. There are times when working with wyrd can mean seeking the smooth flow of the pleasant stream, finding a channel that seems right and that gives joy to others as well as oneself, finding the means to create frith, productive peace, wherever one is.
But at other times the flow cannot be smooth. Here, working with wyrd is about change, transformation of self or community, taking decisions that will effect a new 'becoming', and it is here that people most seek guidance. We see only a little way along the strands and cannot know all outcomes of wyrd's weaving, yet sometimes we can recognise these turning-points, know when the time is right for our actions, and by acting with a knowledge of the complexities of wyrd, commit ourselves to follow particular courses and to accept responsibility for what we do there. And so, finally, for me 'wyrd' is about responsibility. I do not make my own history just as I please: but within the social fabric of gods, wights and people, and working with whatever the norns have given me, I create my own weaving, author my own story, and accept the obligations that result.