Some Thoughts on the Norse Pagan Concept of Fate

Norse paganism/Heathenry has been a big part of my spirituality for a long time. However, one of the core aspects of the Old Norse worldview is the idea of fate with very limited free will, complete with a destined “death day” for every person — which I’m having a lot of trouble accepting right now with thousands dying of COVID-19, plus several recent deaths in my family that were either freak accidents or the direct result of human error.

As I’m figuring things out and beginning my grieving process, I’ve been trying to really dig into the concept of fate vs. free will and see not only what historical sources say but how modern Heathens interpret it.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept of fate in Norse culture, here’s a basic rundown: fate, or örlog, is the force that shapes men’s destinies, and many of the sagas seem to take the stance of fate being unyielding and inescapable. Even being told their fate in great detail doesn’t help men escape it, and even the gods can’t escape their fated deaths at Ragnarok.

The entities most closely associated with fate are the Norns. Both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda refer to three Norns, sisters named Urðr (whose name is often just translated as “fate”), Verðandi (“happening”) and Skuld (“debt,” “future,” or “should happen”). These three Norns are the keepers of the Well of Urðr, literally the Well of Fate, and also tend Yggdrasil. The Norns are said to record the fates of all gods and men.

However, to complicate things, some sources refer to individual norns, with each person having their own norn or group of norns who are responsible for their örlog. A person with a good fate is said to have good norns, while a person with a bad fate has bad norns.

(For a more detailed description of the Old Norse concept of fate, check out this excellent video by Jackson Crawford.)

This is where I run into one of my major issues with reconstruction and with Heathenry specifically. All of our sources are fictionalized accounts (as opposed to purely religious guides) so it’s not always clear what is genuine theology and what is a literary allusion. Were there three Norns, or did everyone have their own? Do the Norns create fate or just record it? Do they weave threads of fate or carve it into sticks? Was any of this actually relevant to Norse religion or is it just a metaphor? We don’t know!

Is örlog a core doctrine of this religion, or a product of Old Norse cultural values like drengskapr? Is it even still relevant to modern Heathens disconnected from that cultural context? How would the concept have changed over time if the religion had continued uninterrupted? We don’t know!

I decided to check out some books by modern Heathen authors to see how other people have adapted the concept of örlog to fit their modern experiences.

Both Diana Paxson and Patricia M. Lafayllve describe two “types” of fate, örlog and wyrd, with örlog being what is set in stone by the Norns and wyrd being the fate we create for ourselves. This doesn’t really make sense to me, because it mixes Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon concepts, and I think it twists those concepts to fit what the authors want to believe. Wyrd is an Old English word that roughly translates to “fate” or “luck” and is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent to örlog. We see wyrd discussed at length in Beowulf, where, like örlog, it seems to be set in stone with very little room for change. Beowulf can’t escape his wyrd any more than Odin can escape his örlog. Because of this, using “wyrd” as a way to describe limited free will doesn’t really make sense to me.

However, I found a much more interesting model for classifying fate vs. free will in Ryan Smith’s book, The Way of Fire and Ice. There’s no way I could phrase this better than Smith does in his book, so I’ll let his words speak for themselves:

I think this is really fascinating because it follows a general trend in modern religions of developing a greater concept of free will as we move into a postmodern society with fewer clearly defined social rules, which is a pattern we can see at work in Christianity, for example. Medieval Christians had a much stronger belief in unchanging fate, while modern Christians tend to believe in some form of free will.

I am also fascinated by the concept of hamingja as a function of free will. The hamingja is personified as a guardian spirit similar to the fylgia (fylgia are a type of animal guide) that embody a person’s luck and happiness/joy. Interestingly, hamingja can be loaned out to other people, literally sharing your good fortune. This makes sense — if you have a lot of resources at your disposal (which the Old Norse would say was because you had a powerful hamingja), you can use those resources to make things better for others.

If we stick with the idea of people having their own personal norns, this means each person has two sets of guardian spirits who may or may not control their fate. Your norn or norns determine things like the time and place of your birth, the family you are born into, and your social class. Your hamingja, on the other hand, is the personification of the choices you make within the framework laid out by the norns. Your hamingja is made up of your natural talents, the skills you choose to develop, the connections you forge with other people, and anything else that allows you to change your circumstances.

What I’m about to say is 100% guesswork on my part — I have yet to find any scholarly backing for this, so feel free to disregard it as me making connections where none exist. But for me, the concept of personal norns and hamingja seems very similar to the dísir. Dísir are feminine guardian spirits connected to family groups, rather than individuals, and like the norns and the hamingja, they are sometimes connected to fate. Some archaeologists believe that the dísir were deceased family members, and that their veneration is rooted in ancestor worship. This makes a lot of sense to me because our fate, the circumstances of our birth, are largely determined by the actions of our ancestors.

It seems entirely possible to me that the norns and the hamingja might be subsets of dísir, or even that the three may all be different names for the same beings. (Remember, Norse literature frequently uses kennings, alternative titles for a person or thing used to express different aspects of that person/thing and to fit the alliterative structure of Old Norse poetry.) Or, more likely, the dísir were originally associated with fate and luck, and the norns and hamingja represent later developments, splitting the role of the dísir into smaller groups of spirits with more specific purposes. 

These are just my thoughts, but I would love to hear from other Norse pagans! How do you think of the norns? How do you see fate at work in your life?

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