Editor’s note: this post was revised and updated on 18 April 2023.
“I do not try to understand the great pattern the Norns are weaving, for that is beyond the ken of any man. But I do believe it can be possible, at times, for a man to discern the path the Norns would have him travel – to sense which choices will make his life fit smoothly into their plan, and further it.”-“Hastein,” Judson Roberts, The Strongbow Saga, Book Four: The Long Hunt
The Norns (Old Norse: norn, plural: nornir) in Norse mythology are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men; the roles of some norns overlap with that of the dísir.
According to Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, the three most important norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld come out from a hall standing at the Well of Urðr and they draw water from the well and take sand that lies around it, which they pour over Yggdrasill so that its branches will not rot.
|Old Norse||English Translation|
|20. Þaðan koma meyjar|
þrjár ór þeim sæ,
er und þolli stendr;
Urð hétu eina,
– skáru á skíði, –
Skuld ina þriðju;
þær lög lögðu,
þær líf kuru
|20. Thence come the maidens|
mighty in wisdom,
Three from the dwelling
down ‘neath the tree;
Urth is one named,
Verthandi the next,–
On the wood they scored,–
and Skuld the third.
Laws they made there,
and life allotted
To the sons of men,
and set their fates.
In Anglo-Saxon (English) traditions, the Norns are often described as weaving the fabric of wyrd. Wyrd, ancestral to Modern English “weird,” is a concept in Anglo-Saxon culture cognate to the Old Norse urðr. Whether described as weaving the tapestry of life or watering the world tree, the descriptions of the Norns and their activities is an analogy for things that are beyond mortal knowledge and conception.
Wyrd and urðr are etymological cognates; both Urðr and Verðandi are derived from the Old Norse verb verða, “to be”. While Urðr derives from the past tense (“that which became or happened”), Verðandi derives from the present tense of verða (“that which is happening”). Skuld is derived from the Old Norse verb skulla, “need/ought to be/shall be”; its meaning is “that which should become, or that needs to occur”.
Between them, the Norns weave ørlǫg (from ór “out, from, beyond” and lǫg “law”, and may be interpreted literally as “beyond law”). According to Voluspa 20, the three Norns “set up the laws,” “decided on the lives of the children of time,” and “promulgate their ørlǫg“. Frigg, on the other hand, while she “knows all ørlǫg,” “says it not herself” (Lokasenna 30). Ørlǫglausa (“ørlǫg-less”) occurs in Voluspa 17 in reference to driftwood that is given breath, warmth and spirit by Odin and his brothers to create the first humans (Ask (“Ash”) and Embla (possibly “Elm”)).
Wyrd is not beyond our ability to influence. If someone is caught in a riptide and being pulled out to sea, s/he might swim for the shore; in most cases, this results in exhaustion and drowning. But if the person swims parallel to the shore, s/he soon escapes the pull of the tide and can then swim safely to land.
To fight against the flow of things is futile; to be successful in life, one must understand the flow of wyrd and either work with it or, at most, “swim parallel to the shore.” Like martial arts such as Aikido that seek to use an opponent’s force against him, we should find ways to use the flow of wyrd to accomplish our own ends; in other words, rather than fighting against the flow, one must modify his or her plans to align with the flow of things, finding ways that his or her own goals can be aligned with the currents from the Well of Urðr.
The ancients used augury to aid them in their determination of the “flow” of things:
“Prophetic divining of the future by observation of natural phenomena — particularly the behaviour of birds and animals and the examination of their entrails and other parts, but also by scrutiny of man-made objects and situations. … Two types of divinatory sign, or omen, were recognized: the most important was that deliberately watched for, such as lightning, thunder, flights and cries of birds, or the pecking behaviour of sacred chickens; of less moment was that which occurred casually, such as the unexpected appearance of animals sacred to the gods, or such other mundane signs as the accidental spilling of salt, sneezing, stumbling, or the creaking of furniture.” – Encyclopædia Britannica
There is also some indication that a form of divination using lots was used:
“The use of the lots is simple. A little bough is lopped off a fruit-bearing tree, and cut into small pieces; these are distinguished by certain marks, and thrown carelessly and at random over a white garment. In public questions the priest of the particular state, in private the father of the family, invokes the gods, and, with his eyes toward heaven, takes up each piece three times, and finds in them a meaning according to the mark previously impressed on them.”-Tacitus, Germania
Modern pagans and heathens have guessed that the “certain marks” were runes, the alphabets used by the Germanic peoples as early as 150 A.D. Whether or not this is true, divination via the runes has become a part of modern heathen and neopagan culture.
Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) is quoted as having said “synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see.” Considered the founder of analytical psychology, Jung’s concept of synchronicity can be described as “meaningful coincidences” that occur with no apparent causal relationship while yet having the semblance of meaningfully relation. Jung, who studied astrology and the I Ching among other aspects of mysticism, seemed to see that – regardless of whether or not some deeper power plays a part – the meaningful coincidences produced by drawing from a tarot deck or spilling a handful of runes onto a “white cloth” can be a powerful tool for introspection.
The flow of Wyrd can be seen in the flight of ravens (or crows, if you live in the southern U.S. as does this author), the fall of the runes, or any number of other sources. The key is awareness and self-knowledge. One can never hope to master anything if one has not first mastered oneself; from there, in ever-widening concentric circles, we can reach out from our center to steer the world around us. But to continue that analogy, he who steers a longship across the open sea may be a master of his craft, but he will never be a master of the oceans themselves. That, too, is an important part of the understanding that leads us to improved outcomes.