Fate is an important part of Norse myth and culture, from the all-encompassing poem Völuspá with its vision of creation, end times, and rebirth, to the heroic sagas whose heroes and heroines are pushed by their fates into destructive acts and violence.
Fate was not just an impersonal force, but was often imagined as the norns, women who laid down fate for mortals and immortals alike. These women were present at the beginning of the world, and at births, but people’s view of them was not sentimental.
Runes carved into the entrance of a church at Borgun in Norway read:
Thórir carved these runes on St. Ólafr’s day when he came by here. The norns did both good and bad. They shaped a lot of sorrow for me.
Both John Lindow and Karen Bek-Pedersen quote this verse, which seems to sum up the way medieval Scandinavians felt about the norns. Fate could be bad, or it could be good, but either way you had no say in the matter. Unlike fylgjur or disir, who protected families, or the valkyries who could favour a particular warrior, the norns did not intervene in people’s lives.
(In my post on the obscure goddess Garmangabi I discussed the connections between the Matres, the norns and female powers generally.)
The well, the tree and the norns
The two main sources for our information about the norns are the Eddic poem Volupsa and Snorri’s Prose Edda, which borrows from the poem. Both these translations use English forms of the norns’ names. The Icelandic forms are Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld.
19. I know that an ash-tree stands called Yggdrasill,
a high tree, soaked with shining loam;
from there come the dews which fall in the valley,
ever green, it stands over the well of fate.
20. From there come three girls, knowing a great deal,
from the lake which stands under the tree;
Fate one is called, Becoming another —
they carved on wooden slips — Must-be is the third;
they set down laws, they chose lives,
for the sons of men the fates of men.
(Völuspá, Larrington’s trans.)
In the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson expands on this, although he changes some details. In his version, the norns come from a hall, not a lake. (He may have been working from a different manuscript: the Codex Regius version of this poem says sal, feasting hall, while in Hauksbok it says sae, sea.)
There stands there one beautiful hall under the ash by the well, and out of this hall come three maidens whose names are Weird, Verdandi, Skuld. These maidens shape men’s lives. We call them norns. There are also other norns, who visit everyone when they are born to shape their lives, and these are of divine origin, though others are of the race of elves, and a third group are of the race of the dwarves [quotes from Fafnismal to support this] (Faulkes’ translation)
It’s not surprising that the forces that shape men would live by the world-tree, which links together all the worlds, with roots in Hel, the giant’s home, and Midgard, where humans live. The norns nurture the tree, too, drawing water from Urd’s well to water it every day.
However, while Snorri’s idea that they live a hall seems more logical, there is a pattern in Norse myth of female characters who “know fate” living in or near water. Saga lives in Sokkvabekk, which is underwater, and Frigg lives at Fensalir, or the Marshes.
Völuspá includes another interesting detail: the norns carved on wooden slips. The Roman writer Tacitus describes how the Germans used small pieces of wood with carved markings for divination, and of course most of us think of the runes, which were certainly used for magic.
Karen Bek-Pedersen’s paper, ““Are the Spinning Norns Just a Yarn?,” contests the whole idea of the norns as weaving the way that the Classical goddesses of fate do. Of the three instances she mentions, only one involves the norns, in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I. In this poem, the norns appear in the sky at the hero’s birth, and set to work with threads (ørlögþátto, fate-threads).
4.East and west
they concealed the ends:
the prince should have
the land in between;
the kinswoman of Neri
to the north fastened one,
asked her to hold it forever.
It seems like they’re laying out the future king’s dominions, rather than measuring out his life. (The Greek Moirai measured out the thread of one’s life, with the third one, Atropos, cutting the thread to signify death. Like the norns, they appeared at births.)
Bek-Pedersen points out, too, that the norns seeming to be plying or twining the threads of east and west and north into one strand, rather than spinning or weaving. (You can watch someone plying thread here.)
It’s a bit head-turning to view the norns as cutting fate like runes rather than weaving or spinning it, but it fits the cultural context.
Need and fate
The need rune (N), perhaps because of alliteration, seems to have been linked to the norns. In the Eddic poem Atlakvida Gudrun says:
nái nauðfǫlva létir
made the norns weep
at corpses deathly pale (Larrington’s trans.)
While Fafnismal 12 says,
who are the norns, who come to those in need
and deliver mothers of children? (Orchard’s trans.)
Sigdrifusmal also mentions both need and norns: in verse 7 Sigdrifa tells Sigurd to mark his nails with naud, and 17 she mentions the “norn’s nail” along with the point of Odin’s spear as being marked with runes. (Bek-Pedersen 2011: 34) It doesn’t say if the rune was N, but I like to think it was.
The need rune was not a beneficent one. It appears in the rune-poems as part of the trio of Hail, Need and Ice, and it always has a similar meaning, trouble or constraint. The Norwegian rune-poem makes its point economically:
Constraint gives scant choice;
a naked man is chilled by the frost.
The Anglo-Saxon rune poem puts a moralistic spin on it, telling you not to let trouble catch you unawares, but it’s still the same idea. Perhaps because we tend to think about fate at moments when life feels beyond our control, and a lot of those moments are bad ones, the norns are often seen as working against people.
The graffiti I quoted at the beginning is just one of many such statements. The dwarf Andvari blames his misfortunes on an “evil norn”, and both Gudrun and Brynhild blame the norns for their tragedies. (Bek-Pedesen 2011: 32)
As representatives of fate, they represented the inevitable, and bad things are inevitable. Enoch Powell said that all political careers end in failure. Keynes went further: in the long run we are all dead. The goddesses of fate are a reminder of this, so it’s not surprising if people were ambivalent or even hostile towards them.
PS – In the Eddic poem Havamal, the Sayings of the High One (Odin), the god tells how he once sat at Urd’s Well and listened to their speech and runes, but said nothing (verse 111). This is unlike Odin, who normally questions any supernatural female he encounters.)
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint)
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996.
The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, 2011.
Bek-Pedersen, Karen 2011: The Norns in Old Norse Mythology, Dunedin Academic Press. (Questia)
Bek-Pedersen, Karen 2006: “Are the Spinning Nornir Just a Yarn? A Closer Look at Helgakvida Hundigsbana I 2-4” from the 13th International Saga Conference. (link here)
Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.