The Origin of the Norn
The Germanic peoples seem to have been much impressed by the idea of overruling fate or, at first, of powers controlling the destinies of men and even gods, and it enters largely into their literature.
“Fate none can escape” is the terse saying of Gudrun in Atlamal. Different words expressed this conception. The Old High German “wurt“, Norse “urðr” , anglo-saxon “wyrd” (English weird), had the meaning of “fate” and are commonly translated as fatum, eventus.
“Wurt” may be connected with the Indo-Germanic “uert” (to turn), with which are linked Old High German “wirt”, “wirtel” meaning “spindle”.
Hence “wurt” would have the meaning of a fate spun, just as the Norns spun the threads of human fate.
In literary sources, such as the poem Heliand, “wurd” means the spirit of death or death in the abstract as the fate of man. “Wurd took him away” means “Death took him away”.
In Beowulf we find the phrase “Wyrd ravished him away” or “it shall befall us as Wyrd decideth”.
Wyrd ordains, or weaves, or deceives, or harms. The weaving of fate, “wyrd gewæf”, occurs in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript and also in Beowulf.
The word “metod”, (measure, fate) the power that metes out or dispenses, is used in Heliand, as in the phrase “metodo giscapu” translated as “determined by fate”
The Norns in Norse Mythology
Besides the general use of “urðr” in the sense of fate (the word occurring in the plural “urþer”, meaning “fates”), the Norse people believed in embodiments of fate in one or more supernatural beings, the Norns (Old Norse: Norn, plural Nornir), the chief of whom was herself called Urd (Urðr).
The name, which still occurs in Faroese lore as Norna, is of uncertain derivation, but some students connect it with Swedish dialect forms, “norna”, “nyrna” which mean “to tell secretly”, “to warn” and with Middle English “nyrnen” meaning “to recite” or “to utter”. lt has also been connected with “nornhi” meaning twisting, combining.
There may first have been a number of spirits of fate, with a later more personalized Fate-goddess, the Norn Urd. But in Norse literature there are three Norns, and many Norns are also spoken of.
Snorri Sturluson [the author of the Prose Edda, one of the few original sources of Norse Mythology that we currently have] says in the Prose Edda:
There is a fair hall by the ash under Urd’s well, and out of it come three maids – Urd, Verdandi, Skuld: They determine the course of men’s lives and are called Norns. Yet there are many Norns – those who come to each child that is born and shape its fate, these are of the race of the gods; the second are of the Alfar; the third are of the dwarf kin.
For this statement Snorri cites Fajnismal (old Norse mythological poem):
Of different origin are the Norns,
Not all of one race;
Some are of the people of the Æsir,
Some of the people of the Alfar,
And some are Dvalinn's daughters.
At this point, the hero Gangleri interposes:
If the Norns determine the fates of men, then they give unequal portions. Some have a pleasant, luxurious life, others have few possessions or little fame; some have long life, others short.
To this the reply is:
Good Norns, of honourable race, appoint good life; those who suffer evil fortunes are ruled by evil Norns.
Snorri also says that the Norns who dwell by Urd’s well take water of it every day and sprinkle it over the ash, so that its limbs may not rot or decay.
The Norns intervene in the lives of others
We turn now to the Poetic Edda [the other major source of Norse mythology]. The decision of the Norns, regarding death, is spoken of in the poem Fafnismal, as it it were lying in wait at the beginning of life’s voyage, in youth.
The same poem describes the Norns as helpful in need, bringing the babe from the mother. It also says that the Norns have decided that Sigrdrifa / Brynhild shall not wake from her magic sleep.
At the birth of Helgi, according to the tale Helgi Hundingsbana, it was night in the house when Norns came and shaped his life. He would be most famous of warriors and best of princes.
Mightily they wove the threads of fate, the golden threads, and made them fast in the moon’s hall (the sky). The ends were hid in the East and West, between which his lands would be, and one of the Norns, here called “Neri’s kinswoman”, cast a chain to the North and bade it ever be firm. This betokened the widespread fame of the hero, especially in the North.
In the tale Sigrdrifumal, Mim’s head bade runes to be written on the nails ot the Norns, and the same poem describes birth-runes as those which give help in childbirth, when the Norns (here called Disir) are asked to aid.
Yet the Norns were apt to be regarded as evil, or certain Norns were evilly disposed, as Snorri says.
Thus the dwarf Andvari, transformed to a pike, told Loki that an evil Norn in old days doomed him to dwell in the waters. Brynhild said that grim Norns had shaped for her the painful love she had for Sigurd.
Hostile fates (urþer) had caused the complex situation arising from Sigurd’s having Gudrun as wife, while she herself is Gunnar’s wife. Gudrun says that Norns awakened her with terrible dreams, which she then relates.
In another poem Gudrun speaks of the Norns whose wrath she seeks to escape in death, but in vain.
Helgi blames the Norns for his slaying Bragi and Hogni.
Hamther also speaks ot the Norns (Disir) driving him to slay Erp, and, as he is dying, says that no one outlives the night when the Norns have spoken.
Angantyr found his brother dead on the field of battle, and said that he had brought him to death, for evil is the doom of the Norns.
In the Saga of Harald Fair-hair when Einarr slew Halfdan, he sang:
“The Norns have ruled it rightly”
And in Egils-saga, Kveldulf accused the Norns for snatching away his son Thorolf. Odin, as Hnikar, warned Sigurd that Talar-disir, evil goddesses, presumably Norns, would be at both his sides, willing that he should receive wounds.
Thus death and disaster were due to the decree of the Norns. “The Norns have done both good and evil”, says a runic inscription on the timber church at Borgrund, and their evil aspect may be seen in the name for wolves: “hounds of the Norns” and in the myth that the peace and golden age of the gods were first broken when three giant maidens, of great might, came out of Jötunheim.
This is told in Voluspa, and these giant-maidens are generally regarded as embodiments of fate, or Norns, mightier than the gods. The same phrase, “three maidens (þriar meyjar), is applied to the maidens in this passage and to the Norns themselves in a later passage.
Similarly three hosts of maidens, who come of the giants’ kin, according to the poem Vafthrudnismal, are thought to be Norns, though here kindly of nature.
There is no escaping the fate fixed for men by the Norns, as Gudrun found when she sought but could not obtain death as a relief from her ills. So Svipdag says that no one can tear the decrees of Urd, however undeservedly these are laid upon him.
Two gentle Norns and a vengeful one
The belief in three Norns, one of whom was apt to give an evil destiny, where the others had promised what was good, is illustrated by certain stories.
In the tale Nornageststhattr (written c. 1300 A.D.) the stranger Nornagest was persuaded to tell before King Olaf how he came by his name.
He said that prophetic women (Volor, Spakonur) travelled through the land, foretelling to men their fates. They were invited into houses and gitts were given to them.
They came to his father’s house when Nornagest was in his cradle, two candles burning beside him. Two of them said that he would be greater than any of his kindred or any sons of chiefs in the land.
The third and youngest Norn, because the crowd of people present had pushed her off her seat, said that the child would live only as long as the lighted candle beside him burned. The eldest now blew it out and bade his mother keep it and not relight it.
Having heard this, Olaf persuaded Nornagest to be baptized. He had long ago obtained the candle and now he lit it, saying that he was three hundred years old. After his baptism, the candle fickered out and he died.
The Norns are regarded in this story more as actual women with prophetic powers than as supernatural. The story, which is the subject of a Faroese ballad, is like others summarized in this volume, an interesting example of the literary use of the situation created by the coming of Christianity to Scandinavia and the passing of the old paganism.
The same literary use of a like situation is found in Irish and Welsh literature.
Norns and their equivalents in other mythologies
Some scholars have seen in the story of Nornagest an infuence from the classical tale of Meleager and the three Parcae (in Roman mythology, female personifications of destiny who directed the lives of humans). That story, however, has quite a different ending; and possibly both are variants of an earlier folk-tale.
The candle, with which is bound up the hero’s life, is a Life-token, so well known in innumerable stories, and a similar incident occurs in medieval tales, as well as in later folk-tales, such as the German “Dornröschen”, or Perrault’s “La Belle au bois dormant”, where three, seven or even thirteen fées or spae-wives appear at a child’s birth, the last one wishing it evil, because of a fancied slight, while the others wish it good.
Saxo Grammaticus (Danish historian from the 12th century), who calls the Norns “Parcae” and “Nymphae”, and makes them sisters, says that the ancients consulted their oracles about the destinies of their children:
Fridleit sought to find the fate of his son Olat, and, after offering vows, went to the temple of the gods where he saw three Nymphs sitting on three seats in the sacellum.
The first was benevolent and bestowed on Olaf beauty and favour in the sight of men. The second gave him the gift of great generosity. The third, mischievous and malignant, wished to mar these gifts and ordained to him niggardliness, which was afterwards always mingled with his generosity.
This story suggests a cult of the Norns, but whether we are to understand that their images sat in the sacellum, resembling those of the Celtic Matrae, or that the Norns actually appeared, is not clear.
Saxo’s Wood-nymphs, who aid Hotherus, have some traits of the Norns, but are on the whole more akin to Valkyries. So also have the three maidens who prepared Balder’s magic food.
The eldest maiden, who refused Hotherus a share of this food, is like the evilly disposed Norn.
Three Norns, or three chief Norns, are spoken of by Snorri, copying Voluspa, which alone of the Eddic poems names the three. The ash Yggdrasıl grows by Urd’s well:
Thence come the maidens, great in wisdom,
Three from the hall beneath the tree,
Urd one is called, the second Verdandi,
(On a wooden tablet they scored ), Skuld the third.
Fast they set the lot of life
To the sons ot men, the fate of men.
Urd is also named in the poem Havamal where Loddfafnir says that he was by Urd’s well and heard Har (Odin) speak of runes and giving counsel.
In the poem Svipdagsmal, Groa chants a rune to Svipdag by which the bolts of Urd on every side shall guard him on the road that he goes.
The name of the Norns
Urd was taken for the preterite stem of “verþa” meaning “to be” and called the Norn of the past, and from the same verb came Verdandi, the Norn of the present. From the word “skulu”, denoting the future tense, came Skuld, the Norn ot the future.
Some infuence from the conception of the Greek Moirae, denoted as Past, Present, and Future in Plato’s Republic, or, more directly, from the seventh century encyclopædist, Isidore of Seville, who speaks of the Fates in the same manner, may be admitted here.
Yet there may have been an early belief in three Fates, even if these names are infuenced from the sources mentioned. This is supported by the Voluspa passage about the three giant-maids, if these are Norns, and by the Helgi poem in which three Norns are implied.
Three groups of Norns are known to the poet who wrote Fafnismal. This grouping into three may have reflected the chief functions of the Norns giving life, gving good or evil destiny, and taking away life.
Norns were called Disir; the cult of Disir
The Norns, like the Valkyries, are sometimes called Disir (singular Dis). The Disir are linked to the Idisi of the Merseburg charm.
Dis was used of a woman of higher rank and appears in such female names as Asdis, Vigdis, Freydis; but it generally betokens female supernatural beings. We do not know for certain that these were originally spirits of dead women.
The word Disir is used generically, and seems to include Norns, Valkyries, and Kyn-fylgjur. Dis’ was applied to goddesses: Freyja was the Vanadis, “Lady of the Vanir”, and Skadi the Ondurdis or “Snowshoe Lady”. The word is used in the Sagas to denote spirits, and “Spadisir” is used of armed female guardian spirits and of prophetic women.
Whatever the Disir were, sacrifice called Disablot was offered to them, apparently at harvest or in winter.
The Heimskringla tells how king Adils was at a Disablot in Upsala, and rode his horse through the Disarsalr or hall of the Disir. The horse tripped and fell, and the king was killed. In connexion with this Disablot there was a market and a Disathing or court, the name surviving as that of a fair called Distingen. The Disablot is mentioned in other Sagas, such as the Hervarar-saga.
A great Disablot was held at king Alf’s at harvest-time. Alfhild performed the sacrihce, and in the night, as she was reddening the high place, Starkad carried her away.
A trace of a cult of the Norns is also seen in Saxo’s story of Fridleif. Certain survivals point to the nature of the cult, and show how the beliet in these or similar goddesses of fate continued in later times.
The worship of Norns in other cultures & early Christian times
The German Penitential of the Corrector has the following question, asked of women:
Hast thou, as certain women at certain times do, prepared a table in thy house and placed food and drink with three knives, that if those sisters called by the ancients Parcae come, they are there re freshed; and dost thou believe that they are able now or in the future to benefit thee?
The Penitential of Baldwin of Exeter (12th century) also condemns this custom, performed in hope of good gifts being bestowed on children.
The Corrector cites as an example of a gift conferred by the Parcae, the power of changing into a wolf at will.
In the Faroe Islands the nornagreytur or “Norn groats” is the first food eaten by a mother after childbirth – a relic of an earlier offering to the Norns, who are supposed to show their goodwill to a child by setting marks on its nails, the nornaspor.
Those who have white marks are believed to be lucky. Traces of this are found in Norse and German folklore. White nailmarks betoken that something new or pleasant is about to happen.
The medieval belief in fées (fairies) or in a group of three fées seems to have had its origin, especially as they were associated with the birth of children, the prosperity of a household, or the death of its members, in three sources: the Roman Parcae, the Celtic Deae Matres, and the Scandinavian Norns (possibly also the Valkyries).
Norn-like beings in Germanic folklore
In Germanic folk-story three beings like fées, though sometimes of the hag kind, are found, such as The Three Spinners and its variants. Such beings appeared suddenly, haunted wells, bestowed gifts on children, etc. Two of them might promise a good, and the third an evil, destiny.
Norn-like beings in French folklore
The belief in Nornir and Valkyries must have been carried to France by the Northmen and there have inffuenced the fée superstition. The practice of placing food tor the Parcae already noted is referred to in Guillaume au court Nez; and, in La Jus de la Feuillié of Adam le Bossu, three fées visit house in Arras where a table has been set for them, but as no knife has been provided tor one of them, she bestows ill tortune.
The same custom was long observed in Brittany and Provence, where, at a birth or on the last day of the year, a table was spread for three fées in order to propitiate them and cause them to bring prosperity to the household or endow the child with happiness, just as, in lceland, food was set out for the elves in order that they might be propitious to the household.
Norn-like beings in British folklore and Shakespeare’s work
The Anglo-Saxon wyrd is represented in English and Scots by weird, e.g, “he maun dree his weird” (suffer his destiny). Some link with Germanic Fate-goddesses is therefore to be found in the three weird sisters of our earlier literature.
Holinshed relates that three women “in straunge and terly apparell, resembling creatures of an elder world” met Macbeth and Banquo and foretold their destinies. These women were either the weird sisters, that is the goddesses of destiny, or else some nimphs or feiries, endued with knowledge or prophecy by their Nicromanticall science. They are Shakespeare’s witches or weird sisters, the Fatae or Parcae of Boece’s History.
A story of the weird Sisters is mentioned in The Complaynt of Scotland, but it is now unknown, and the additions to Warner’s Albion’s England (1616 A.D.) speak of “the weird elves” as Spenser has “three fatal Impes” in his Ruines of Time, and Chaucer “the fatal sustrin (sisters)”, akin to “the weird lady of the woods in Percy’s ballad”, who prophesied from a cave about Lord Albert’s child, then stole him away and nurtured him.
Whatever the ultimate origin of the Norns and similar dispensers of destiny may have been, they had human counterparts in actual prophetesses or magic-wielders, like the old Scots “spae-wite”, who toretold an infant’s future, or the Norse Spakona or Volva.
In some reterences to these it is not easy to say where the human aspect ends and the supernatural begins. As Jacob Grimm says:
Prophesying, inspiring and boon-bestowing women were always supposed to pass through the country, knocking at the houses of those whom they would bless,’ and tales of travelling gifting sorceresses were much in vogue all through the Middle Ages.
ln the story of Nornagest, the Norns are called Volor and Spakonur, and are said to travel through the land. In Viga-Glums-saga a Volva or spae-wife called Oddibjorg goes about the land, prophesying and telling stories, her prophecies depending on the kind of entertainment which she receives.
Quite possibly the supernatural Norns were a reflection of such actual women who claimed and were believed to possess powers of prophecy and even of influence on human destiny.
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