The featured image is by Lorenz Frølich in an 1885 edition of Adam Oehlenschläger’s Nordens Guder (Northern Gods). It shows the three Norns, Verdandi, Skuld, and Urd, sitting at the base of Yggdrasil, attending to their business. Note that Skuld has a board on which she is etching the fated deaths of persons and she also has wings, undoubtedly because her name also appears among the names of the valkyrja.
The Norns are three women who have unparalleled influence over the destinies of all beings throughout the nine realms of creation. Their work affects not only humans but also reaches the Aesir, such that they are not the masters of their own fates, as proved by a doom they cannot avoid at Ragnarok. You might be familiar with a trio of women from another culture who weave the fates of men; while there are similarities, don’t mistake the Norns for the Moirai or the Parcae. The Norns are much more carefully intertwined in the pre-Christian Germanic peoples’ understanding of birth, life, death, and rebirth, and are an important component of the significance of womanhood that has survived in mythological sources.
First, let’s cover some biographical information, with sources!
The Norns are three women of unknown species – they’re not described as gods, humans, giants (as instruments of order, they’re clearly not giants), or of any other known race. In some attestations, they seem to overlap with the valkyrja, the female spirits who aid Odin in choosing the bravest of the dead to fight alongside the gods at Ragnarok. There’s also some overlap with the disir, and the disir are worth a post unto themselves – female spirits who aren’t described the same way in each text, and the word can be used to describe goddesses, women, or other beings; I’m inclined to agree with assessments that the term describes female ancestors, worshiped and respected as guardians of the living.
That the Norns are part of an overlapping group of female spirits to be respected, venerated, and even feared, is significant. But let’s finish describing them before we get into that any further.
Their names are Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld. Urd is an Anglicization of the Old Norse Urðr, which means “what once was”. Verdandi is an Anglicization of the Old Norse Verðandi, “what is coming into being”, and if you have any experience with linguistics, you have likely noticed that these two words are really just different conjugations of the same word. Skuld, however, comes from a different root altogether, the verb skulu, which is similar to “shall” and “should”, and Hilda Ellis Davidson explains the variation on the verb to mean something more like a debt, perhaps like the debt we all owe, that which must be, our deaths.
While there are more attestations throughout the various sagas, the Eddas are the primary source for knowledge of the Norns, so we’ll look at two passages before moving on. First, from Völuspá of the Poetic Edda:
19. An ash I know, | Yggdrasil its name,
With water white | is the great tree wet;
Thence come the dews | that fall in the dales,
Green by Urth’s well | does it ever grow.
20. Thence come the maidens | mighty in wisdom,
Three from the dwelling | down ‘neath the tree;
Urth is one named, | Verthandi the next,–
On the wood they scored,— | and Skuld the third.
Laws they made there, and life allotted
To the sons of men, and set their fates.
And Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic scholar reviewing Voluspa and other sources in the 13th century, has this to add in Gylfaginning:
There are many fair places in heaven, and over everything there a godlike watch is kept. A hall stands there, fair, under the ash by the well, and out of that hall come three maids, who are called thus: Urdr, Verdandi, Skuld; these maids determine the period of men’s lives: we call them Norns; but there are many norns: those who come to each child that is born, to appoint his life; these are of the race of the gods, but the second are of the Elf-people, and the third are of the kindred of the dwarves, as it is said here:
Most sundered in birth | I say the Norns are;
They claim no common kin:
Some are of Æsir-kin, | some are of Elf-kind,
Some are Dvalinn’s daughters.”
Then said Gangleri: “If the Norns determine the weirds of men, then they apportion exceeding unevenly, seeing that some have a pleasant and luxurious life, but others have little worldly goods or fame; some have long life, others short.” Hárr said: “Good norns and of honorable race appoint good life; but those men that suffer evil fortunes are governed by evil norns.”
It is further said that these Norns who dwell by the Well of Urdr take water of the well every day, and with it that clay which lies about the well, and sprinkle it over the Ash, to the end that its limbs shall not wither nor rot; for that water is so holy that all things which come there into the well become as white as the film which lies within the egg-shell….
So here is where we determine what the Norns actually did to determine the fates of all of creation. They lived at the Well of Urd (the Norn named Urd is more likely named after the well than the well for the Norn, and in this context Urd means “knowledge”) and with the water from the well and clay at its base, tended to Yggdrasil, the ash tree that was the source of all the life in the nine realms. According to Voluspa, they “scored the wood”, perhaps etching the fated deaths of beings, or perhaps carving runes of judgment into the tree itself. And according to Snorri, these Norns are just three of many, who come to children at birth.
You’ll notice there’s no mention here of weaving, spinning, thread, or anything else related to textiles or tapestries. Most scholars accept that the Norns are somehow involved in “weaving fate”, as with their cognates from Greece and Rome, but there’s surprisingly little textual evidence for that, with the closest bit coming from a saga at the end of the Viking Age, most likely influenced by the southerners’ knowledge of Mediterranean myth. The point is less that there was no relationship between the Norns and the Moirai (there certainly are Proto-Indo-European roots shared, and there may have been weaving among the Norns beyond what has been passed down to us), but that the images that have survived of the Norns are focused more on agricultural activities and carefully cultivating life, rather than the more artificial manufacturing associated with the weaving and spinning of the Moirai. The Norns are a part of the cycle of life in a more intimate way.
So let’s pay closer attention to those tasks. In caring for Yggdrasil, the source of all life, and carving runes into the tree, and engaging in other rituals most likely associated with the magical practices of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, the Norns built the destinies of all beings, small and large, significant and insignificant. As with any tree, the water was absorbed through the roots and pulled up the veins, distributing their decrees throughout the nine realms, falling back through the dew produced by the tree’s leaves, eventually filtering through the ground and settling back in the Well of Urd as knowledge of the past, where the process is repeated.
Birth, life, death, rebirth. The cycle of life.
And let’s pay closer attention now to the Norns’ association with other spiritual beings. The disir are definitely female spirits of some kind, most likely female ancestors. The valkyrja are those who choose the honored dead from the battlefield. In fact, there is a valkyrie named Skuld; it’s unlikely that they are the same being, but the extra level of overlap is striking. And, interestingly, there’s apparently a class of norn who comes to the birth of children and sets their fate upon them, perhaps good, perhaps ill, but in any case, norns are strongly associated with the act of birth, disir are guardians of life, valkyrja are caretakers for the journey to death, while the three chief Norns, Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, oversee the whole process from the base of Yggdrasil. The female Aesir, like the male Aesir, are present in a variety of the aspects of life, but predominantly fertility, with Freyja in the role of fertile maiden, Frigga mother and matriarch, Sif as the wife personified, and so on.
It seems then that there is a special connection between the Norns and the cycle of life, and not just the Norns, but the female spiritual beings as a group. The Norns are just an important part of the process.
That this association for women with the cycle of life throughout its entire cycle is surely no accident, and that these associations are for the most part positive reflects a culture that recognized the role of women as partners in society.That is not to say that women, spiritual or tangible, were did not face prejudice, as pre-Christian Germanic peoples were certainly patriarchal and had certain prejudices and taboos with respect to feminine activities and behaviors, particularly with respect to most kinds of magic.
But it’s easy to see the line running through all of this culture and its mythology, that without women, life would be impossible, and that having a good mother or bad mother has an indelible effect on one’s life, that women are inextricably linked both to the success of society and to the happiness and well-being of the individuals within that society.
Interestingly, the pre-Christian Germanic view of destiny does not understand the Norns, and therefore women in general, to have written a fate that is inescapable. They design the structure of fate as it is passed to the nine realms through Yggdrasil, and influence the lives of every being at their birth. But they don’t decide the outcomes of individual events. Neither the Norns nor women in general can be blamed for all outcomes. Instead, a person has to recognize that he is adapting to the conditions set forth by the Norns, and either find a way to thrive in those conditions, or lose his way and lead a life unworthy of his ancestors.
The Norns, then, were among the most powerful beings in the religious views of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, if only because the decisions they made as they cared for the world tree Yggdrasil shaped the fates of every being in all the nine realms. As a key component of a sisterhood of female spiritual beings, they show that these societies venerated women as fundamental to the cycle of life.