Sunday, 21 January 2018

Fate in the Germanic Tradition

Brynhild and Gudrun are bound by fate; by Rackham (1911) 
In the Hamdismál (a poem within the Codex Regius) a man who is about to die says to his brother: 
“30. ‘Great glory we have gained though we die now or tomorrow; no man survives a single dusk beyond the Norns’ decree’.”
The brothers have won “great glory” because they have, at the urging of their mother Gudrun, avenged the death of their sister by slaughtering her murderer and in the doing of it showing themselves to be fearless warriors. They do not lament their imminent death; to do so would be futile, for the date is preordained. They cannot choose the hour of their death, but they can choose the manner in which they meet it, either boldly or otherwise. It is as if they fearlessly look into the eyes of death even as they succumb to his grip. Equally pointless as resisting the hour of one’s death is attempting to embrace death before the hour decreed by fate – just as Gudrun failed in her attempt at suicide by wading into a rough sea:
“13. [Gudrun laments:] ‘I went to the sea-shore, I was angry with the Norns, I wanted to rid myself of their painful plans: high waves lifted me, didn’t drown me; I climbed up on to the land, since I had to live [Gudrúnarhvöt, Codex Regius].”
These lines suggest that in traditional Germanic polytheism fate is immutable, and we only have so much control over the things that happen to us. The disparity in the fortunes of men is explained through the workings of the Norns, who dwell by the Spring of Fate:
“20. From there come maidens, knowing much, three from the lake that stands under the tree [Yggdrasil]: Destiny they called one [Urdr], Becoming the second [Verdrandi] – they carved on wood-tablets – Shall-be the third [Skuld]; laws they laid down, lives they chose for the children of mankind, the fates of men [Völuspá, Codex Regius].”
Fate is not necessarily just or kind 
Though the Norns are hugely powerful and perform the praiseworthy task of nourishing Yggdrasil (Prose Edda at 27), there is a pragmatic acceptance that the laws laid down by them are not necessarily just or fair, as Snorri Sturluson records:
“‘If the Norns decide the fates of men, then they do so in a terribly uneven manner. Some people enjoy a good and prosperous life, whereas others have little wealth or renown. Some have a long life, but others, a short one.’ … ‘The good Norns, the ones who are well born, shape a good life. When people experience misfortune, it is the bad Norns who are responsible’ [Prose Edda at 26].”
Less than benevolent Norns are also referred to in the Reginsmál (in the Codex Regius) where the dwarf Andvari explains that:
“2. … a Norn of misfortune shaped my fate in the early days, so that I have to spend my time in the water.”
In the Saga of the Volsungs the same passage is translated as:
“… a wretched Norn destined in ancient days that I should wade in water [at 58].”
In the Sigurdarkvida in skamma (within the Codex Regius) Brynhild laments that her fate is to be married to Gudrun's brother Gunnar, whom she was tricked into marrying, instead of Gudrun's husband Sigurd, since Sigurd pledged himself to Brynhild first and only forgot his vow to her after drinking bespelled mead brewed by Gudrun's sorceress mother: “7. … the hateful Norns decreed this long torment for us”, says Brynhild. Another translation of the same verse is “contrary Norns have pitched us long yearning”. 

The Norns as birth deities
Then there are more salutary Norns, as recorded in the Saga of the Volsungs:
“… when Helgi was born, Norns came and set his destiny, saying that he would become the most famous of all kings [at 47].” 
More detail is provided in the Helgakvida Hundingsbana in fyrri (in the Codex Regius):
“1. … at that time Helgi the mighty-hearted was born to Borghild in Braland. 
2. It was night in the homestead; the Norns came, those who would shape fate for that noble; they said he’d become the most famed of war-lords, and be thought the best of princelings. 
3. They braided strongly the strands of fate, shook up the stronghold in Braland; they arranged the golden threads and fixed them in the middle under Moon’s hall [ie, in the sky]. 
4. East and West they hid the ends ...”
There appears to be a similarity between these Norse descriptions and a tale told by Saxo Grammaticus in his 12th/13th century description of a Heathen rite by a Danish king:
“The ancients were wont to consult the oracles of the Fates concerning the destinies of their children. In this way Fridleif desired to search into the fate of his son Olaf; and, after solemnly offering up his vows, he went to the house of the Gods in entreaty; where, looking into the chapel, he saw three maidens, sitting on three seats. The first of them was of a benignant temper, and bestowed upon the boy abundant beauty and ample store of favour in the eyes of men. The second granted him the gift of surpassing generosity. But the third, a woman of more mischievous temper and malignant disposition, scorning the unanimous kindness of her sisters, and likewise wishing to mar their gifts, marked the future character of the boy with the slur of niggardliness. Thus the benefits of the others were spoilt by the poison of a lamentable doom; and hence, by virtue of the twofold nature of these gifts Olaf got his surname from the meanness which was mingled with his bounty. So it came about that this blemish which found its way into the gift marred the whole sweetness of its first benignity [The Danish History at].”
This suggests that the Norns (aka the Fates) were ritually worshipped, and even had temples built in their honour wherein their priestesses could be found. However, as Saxo was hostile to traditional Germanic religion (unlike our Icelandic sources) and lived at least a century after its demise it may be that we should treat his description with caution.*

Although the Völuspá and the Prose Edda specifically refer to the Norns as “three maidens”, it seems that there are numerous Norns who shape the destinies of individuals:
“There are yet more Norns, those who come to each person at birth to decide the length of one’s life, and these are related to the Gods. Others are descended from the Elves, and a third group comes from the Dwarves [Prose Edda at 24-26].”
This passage appears to paraphrase the Fáfnismál (in the Codex Regius), in which it is written:
“[Sigurd said:] 12. ‘Tell me, Fafnir, since they call you wise, and you know very much: who are the Norns, who come to those in need, and deliver mothers of children?’ 
[Fafnir said:] 13. ‘Those Norns, I say, are born from different kin, they don’t share a common family; some are born of the Aesir, some of the Elves, some are the daughters of Dawdler [the Dwarf].’”
The Norns as death deities 
Just as the Norns are strongly associated with birth and the assignment of individual fate, there is no getting away from the association of the Norns with death. In European polytheism Gods associated with death often seem to be associated with canines as well,** and so it is with the Norns; in the Hamdismál one brother says to the other:
“29. I think it’s not for us, the wolves’ example, to fight among each other, like the Norns’ curs, reared ravenous, away in the wilderness.”
According to Snorri Sturluson the Norns even have an association with Valkyries, choosers of the slain:
“There are still [other female deities] whose duty it is to serve in Valhalla … These women are called Valkyries. They are sent by Odin to every battle, where they choose which men are to die and they determine who has the victory. Gunn and Rota and the youngest Norn, named Skuld, always ride to choose the slain and to decide the outcome of a battle [Prose Edda at 44-45].”
If Skuld is not the only Norn on a battlefield it may be that numerous Norns, possibly going by the name of the Disir, guide the fate of men. 

In the Germanic concept of fate there is a strong sense of inevitability, with the Norns determining significant life circumstances and events.
“44. ‘Young man, you shall see the girl under the helmet, who rode away from the battle on [her horse] Vingskornir. Sigrdrifa’s [ie, Brynhild's] sleep may not be broken by a princely youth, except by the Norns’ decree’ [Fáfnismál, Codex Regius].”
To what extent individuals can be said to have free will is uncertain. Among the religions of other Indo-Europeans there appear to be parallels to the Germanic idea of fate which may help us to understand it. In India the ancient Vedic religion had the important concept of rita (also known as rta; it means something like “cosmic order”) which evolved into the concept of karma – the law of cause and effect, whereby our past, present and future actions and circumstances are inexorably interconnected; we cannot escape our karma, though we can shape our response to it and thence the path it might take in the future (including in the life to come). Of obvious similarity to the Norns are the Greco-Roman Moirai/Parcae – three Goddesses of fate who spin and weave the order of things, including our individual destinies, the span of our lives and our allotment of fortune and misfortune. 

On balance it seems likely that the traditional Germanic approach is to accept that even though we are bound by fate in many things, we have a certain amount of limited free will – this must be so for why else is the Hávamál (said to contain the words of Odin) full of so much advice about the best way to live. The advice is almost always about choosing to conduct oneself in one way over another. Vikings did not sit around the fireplace waiting for fate to take its inevitable course, they went out to meet it, and even a futile struggle was thought to be better than no struggle at all (this is the lesson of Ragnarök). It may be that the order of things is set down by the Norns but how we respond to our circumstances is up to us. As that famous line in Beowulf goes:
“For Wyrd [fate] oft saveth earl undoomed if he doughty [brave and persistent] be [].”
Odin’s warriors in Valhalla are not merely men who died in combat, for even cowards can die in battle, the Einherjar are distinguished by their fearlessness, which is to say by their state of mind. Perhaps we do not choose a great many of our life circumstances but we can choose courage over cowardice – that is on us.
“48. Generous and brave men live the best, seldom do they harbour anxiety; but the cowardly man is afraid of everything, the miser always sighs when he gets gifts [Hávamál, Codex Regius].” 

* For example, Saxo proclaims his hostility to the old Gods in The Danish History ( when he accuses them of “sorcery … cunning … sleights … winning the minds of the simple … imposture … deceit …”. Of interest though is that he does not deny their existence altogether, it is more that he denigrates and insults their divinity. 

** Odin (a God of death, inter alia) owns the wolves known as Freki and Geri, and within the Roman pantheon (which was certainly known to many Germanic people) Dis Pater (God of Hades and owner of the three-headed dog Cerberus), Trivia (Goddess of the crossroads) and Diana (Goddess of the hunt, thus the kill) are all strongly associated with dogs. 

If you enjoyed reading this you may also enjoy Germanic Beliefs Regarding the Afterlife

  • Byock (translator), The Prose Edda, Penguin Classics 
  • Byock (translator), The Saga of the Volsungs, Penguin Classics 
  • Elton (translator), The Danish History,
  • Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Grummere (translator), Beowulf,
  • Hasenfratz, Barbarian Rites: The Spiritual World of the Vikings and the Germanic Tribes, Inner Traditions 
  • Larrington (translator), The Poetic Edda, Oxford World’s Classics (includes the Codex Regius) 
  • Orchard (translator), The Elder Edda: Myths, Gods and Heroes from the Viking World, Penguin Books (includes the Codex Regius) 
Written by M' Sentia Figula (aka Freki), find me at neo polytheist and

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