Fate in Norse Mythology

Fate is seen as personified in the three Norns. On this, academics seem to agree; but when it comes to the actual concept of fate, opinions vary. Here, I try to present two understandings and my own.

Large wooden statues of the Norns
Large wooden statues of the Norns at a museum in Ribe, Denmark

Two interpretations

The three Norns are called Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld. One interpretation of these names is to see them as conjugations or word forms of the verb “verda”, to be or to become. Another interpretation focuses on the meaning of the names or words as they are used.

If we begin with the first interpretation, which paints the Norns as representing the past, the present, and the future, this idea relies on a grammatical analysis of the word forms of the verb “to be”: Urd from urdo, which is past tense; Verdandi from the same, which is progressive grammatically and can be translated as “being”; Skuld from skulo which is seen as expressing future. The Scandinavian languages are Germanic and do not have a grammatical future tense, so future is formed with auxiliary verbs like in English (another Germanic language in its structure despite the many words of Latin origin.) Henning Kure claims to find no corroboration for this interpretation in the source material.

The second interpretation removes fate from any connection with time and relies entirely on the meaning of the words behind the names as seen in their use or context. Urd seems to mean both fate and death. Henning Kure says it is not possible to distinguish between the two meanings in surviving examples of usage and suggests that they should therefore be understood as connected (Kure, p.229). Verdandi is come into being or birthing.
Skuld is used to mean debt or what is owed (duty). Henning Kure sees this as meaning what one is answerable for or under obligation to do; something inescapable or necessary; the responsibility one has in one’s life.

In the Scandinavian languages we have the verb “skulle” equivalent to “should”. Now if you think about the nuances in that word, the meaning Kure is talking about is also present in English: What should we do = What ought we to do = What would be the right thing to do. Do you see the connection to “duty” like I do?
We also have the noun “skyld” meaning “debt”, “sake”, “fault/doing” (as in: the reason for something happening, the catalyst) and its related verb “at skylde” meaning “to owe”. All of these meanings lend credibility to Kure’s interpretation of Skuld as more than a simple understanding of future.

What I like so much about Henning Kure’s thinking is that he continually questions the reliability of the sources because they are not truly contemporary. This is the sore point for me with so many of the forwarded perceptions of fate and the Norns. I strongly disagree with the idea that the Norse people should have been utterly fatalistic. I seek to explain why in the following.

Death is portrayed as predetermined; but not fate in the broader sense.

So, what did the Norse people believe?

We cannot absolutely prove what they believed. There are no sources from the period written by these people themselves. What sources we have are either later (and also post-Christianity) or from outsiders (English, Frankish, Arab). The problem with this is obvious: the writers come to the material with their own world view and agenda.

I believe that the Norse understanding of fate (Ørlǫg) is not fatalistic. Fate does not indicate absolute pre-determination, but rather the potential in each life. And I am not alone in this belief.

My take on the Norse concept of fate is based on the meaning of the names of the Norns provided by Henning Kure, which I presented and discussed above; and also on something as unscientific as feeling or intuition.

Complete fatalism just doesn’t ring true, and it is also foreign thinking to the current ethnic Scandinavians. Of course, Scandinavian culture today is fundamentally Christian and has been for centuries; but still – again very unscientific here – I feel an underlying connection to our pagan roots present in our thinking. One need only consider attitudes to sex and public nudity to immediately see how the Scandinavian culture differs from many other Christian cultures.

The Eddas, Saxo’s Chronicles, and the Icelandic sagas are the main sources to our understanding of the earlier Nordic beliefs and the old religion. But while they deal with events from the Viking Age, they were written down in the 13th century – so, much later. It is possible to read a belief in pre-determination into some of these stories and poems.

How I see the Norse concept of fate

First, I would like to pose a couple of rhetorical questions in answer to this. Then, I will move on to explain my views using the story Signy Kráka.

My first rhetorical question:

How could anyone take pride in their achievements if one’s own will and choice of action played no part, if everything that happened was preordained?

Honour and reputation are thought to have been of uttermost importance to the Norse. Not just one’s own, but the honour of one’s whole family through the ages. Drive and ambition, courage and gumption, these are the admired values.

Now by all means, it is entirely plausible that also back then, people would sometimes chalk their failures up to fate and not take ownership for their own shortcomings. Why would people at that point in history be any different from people now in this respect? Excuses, excuses. (A trap even the best of us can fall into; but which really takes our power away if one thinks about it.)

My second rhetorical question:

If your destiny was completely predetermined, why would the Norns be continuously weaving and spinning your thread in the web throughout your life?

The imagery of the weavers and spinners of fate shows us how our choices and actions influence our future and our past. In my opinion, this image also shows something else fundamentally important; how our life thread is part of a bigger web, how it joins other life threads and sometimes leaves them again to join new ones. In other words, it shows how connected lives are. How our actions and choices impact others and the whole.

I fully acknowledge that some of my thinking is very speculative and may indeed be faulty. I do not claim to know any absolute truth. (Does such a thing even exist?) This is just a presentation of my ideas.

You are likely to find that my take on the Norns and the concept of fate differs somewhat from the portrayal by a number of other fiction creators who set their stories in the Viking Age.

As a reader and viewer, I have certainly received the impression that the idea portrayed was one of absolute pre-determination and unavoidable fate. I believe that this thinking comes from the understanding of Greek mythology. I almost cringe when I read or hear of the Norns or gods laughing at someone’s joy or at a hero basking in their own glory. To me that idea smacks far too much of Nemesis, and is far removed from Odin and company.

But let me repeat: I do not claim to hold the truth. Everyone is free to think of fate as they wish, and to believe of the Vikings what they will. After all, my ideas are just as coloured by my values and experiences as every other perception. I listened to my heart as I read varying accounts of the Norns and of fate.

The Role of the Norns in Signy Kráka

*** Fear not – No spoilers ***

If you have read the story – or just opened the book really – you will have seen these lines:

The Norns know
The Norns know who you truly are
and who you long to be

The Norns know you
better than you know yourself
The Norns know all

I wrote these lines to help myself understand how I saw the role of the Norns. When I plotted the story, they were not part of the plan; but they appeared in the scene in Uppsala when I wrote the first draft. If you have read the story, you will know what scene I am talking about. (Like Signy, I failed to recognise who they were at first. Writing is an adventure for me like that. And I feel very thankful for it. The mysticism is not planned, it creeps in all by itself as I type.)

What I imagine is that the Norns can see the big picture. They can see our potential even when we cannot or do not. This is why I say: “The Norns know […] The Norns know you […] The Norns know all”. That “all” is deliberately double in meaning. They know all of us, everyone, and they also know all about each one of us. We may lack not only knowledge of how the actions of others impact or will influence our lives, but also self-awareness; so we need the Norns to nudge or push us.

Now, back to fatalism… and the two main reasons I refute the idea that the Norse were fatalistic. Firstly, when the names of the Norns are considered in context, fate is removed from any connection with time. So, the three Norns are not simply representations of the past, the present, and the future. The most interesting Norn in this respect is Skuld. Skuld is used to mean “debt” or “what is owed”. In the sense of a catalyst, the reason something happens. A cycle or chain of causality in which our own actions and those of our ancestors play their part.

Secondly, complete fatalism just doesn’t ring true when one considers central values in Norse culture. Honour and reputation are thought to have been of utmost importance to the Norse. Not just one’s own, but the honour of one’s whole family through the ages. Drive and ambition, courage and gumption, these are the admired qualities in the literature passed on to us. So, I ask: How could anyone take pride in their achievements if one’s own will and choice of action played no part, if everything that happened was preordained?

What role does fate and the Norns then play in my argument here? Well, I see it as one’s path in life being a combined effort of will and fate. It’s that element of the big picture that I mentioned earlier. The Norns are a mythological representation of the obvious concept that past actions impact our present; but also, because of the all-seeing and all-knowing ability of the Norns, the more mystical, yet just as obvious notion that our future likewise influences our present. We have a debt to our future that we need to keep in mind.

The characters in my story have free will, but their path in life is not solely influenced by their own choices.

Henning Kure, I begyndelsen var skriget: vikingetidens myter om skabelsen, (Gyldendal, 2010)