Norns

Norns

The Norns (Old Norse: norn, plural: nornir) in Norse religion are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. They roughly correspond to other controllers of humans’ destiny, the Fates, elsewhere in European mythology.

In Snorri Sturluson‘s interpretation of the Völuspá, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld, the three most important of the Norns, come out from a hall standing at the Well of Urðr or Well of Fate. They draw water from the well and take sand that lies around it, which they pour over Yggdrasill so that its branches will not rot.[2] These three Norns are described as powerful maiden giantesses (Jotuns) whose arrival from Jötunheimr ended the golden age of the gods. They may be the same as the maidens of Mögþrasir who are described in Vafþrúðnismál (see below).

Beside these three famous Norns, there are many others who appear at a person’s birth in order to determine his or her future. In the pre-Christian Norse societies, Norns were thought to have visited newborn children. There were both malevolent and benevolent Norns: the former caused all the malevolent and tragic events in the world while the latter were kind and protective goddesses.

Norns
The Norns spin the threads of fate at the foot of Yggdrasil, the tree of the world. Beneath them is the well Urðarbrunnr with the two swans that have engendered all the swans in the world.
Norns
The Norns (1889) by Johannes Gehrts.

Etymology

The origin of the name norn is uncertain, it may derive from a word meaning “to twine” and which would refer to their twining the thread of fate. Bek-Pedersen suggests that the word norn has relation to the Swedish dialect word norna (nyrna), a verb that means “secretly communicate”. This relates to the perception of norns as shadowy, background figures who only really ever reveal their fateful secrets to men as their fates come to pass.

The name Urðr (Old English Wyrd, Weird) means “fate”. It should be noted that wyrd and urðr are etymological cognates, which does not guarantee that wyrd and urðr share the same semantic quality of “fate” over time. Both Urðr and Verðandi are derived from the Old Norse verb verða, “to be”. While Urðr derives from the past tense (“that which became or happened”), Verðandi derives from the present tense of verða (“that which is happening”). Skuld is derived from the Old Norse verb skulla, “need/ought to be/shall be”; its meaning is “that which should become, or that needs to occur”

Relation to other Germanic female deities

There is no clear distinction between norns, fylgjas, hamingjas and valkyries, nor with the generic term dísir. Moreover, artistic license permitted such terms to be used for mortal women in Old Norse poetry. To quote Snorri Sturluson‘s Skáldskaparmál on the various names used for women:

Woman is also metaphorically called by the names of the Asynjur or the Valkyrs or Norns or women of supernatural kind.

These unclear distinctions among norns and other Germanic female deities are discussed in Bek-Pedersen’s book Norns in old Norse Mythology and in Lionarons article “Disir, Valkyries, Volur, and Norns: The Weise Frauen of the Deutsche Mythologie”.

Attestations

There are a number of surviving Old Norse sources that relate to the norns. The most important sources are the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. The latter contains pagan poetry where the norns are frequently referred to, while the former contains, in addition to pagan poetry, retellings, descriptions and commentaries by the 12th and 13th century Icelandic chieftain and scholar Snorri Sturluson.

Norns
Balder Mimer consult Norns

Skaldic poetry

A skaldic reference to the norns appears in Hvini’s poem in Ynglingatal 24 found in Ynglingasaga 47, where King Halfdan is put to rest by his men at Borró. This reference brings in the phrase “norna dómr” which means “judgment of the nornir”. In most cases, when the norns pass judgment, it means death to those who have been judged – in this case, Halfdan. Along with being associated with being bringers of death, Bek-Pedersen suggests that this phrase brings in a quasi-legal aspect to the nature of the norns. This legal association is employed quite frequently within skaldic and eddic sources. This phrase can also be seen as a threat, as death is the final and inevitable decision that the norns can make with regard to human life.

Ok til Þings
Þriðja jǫfri
Hvedðrungs mær
ór heimi bauð
pás Halfdan,
sás Holtum bjó,
norna dóms
of notit hafði.
Ok buðlung
á Borrói
sigrhafendr
síðan fólu.
And to a meeting
Hveðrungr’s maid
called the third king
from the world,
at the time when Halfdan,
he who lived at Holt,
had embraced
the judgment of the nornir;
and at Borró
the victorious men
later did hide
the king.

Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda is valuable in representing older material in poetry from which Snorri tapped information in the Prose Edda. Like Gylfaginning, the Poetic Edda mentions the existence of many lesser norns beside the three main norns. Moreover, it also agrees with Gylfaginning by telling that they were of several races and that the dwarven norns were the daughters of Dvalin. It also suggests that the three main norns were giantesses (female Jotuns).

Fáfnismál contains a discussion between the hero Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir who is dying from a mortal wound from Sigurd. The hero asks Fafnir of many things, among them the nature of the norns. Fafnir explains that they are many and from several races:

Sigurðr kvað:
12. “Segðu mér, Fáfnir,
alls þik fróðan kveða
ok vel margt vita,
hverjar ro þær nornir,
er nauðgönglar ro
ok kjósa mæðr frá mögum.”
Fáfnir kvað:
13. “Sundrbornar mjök
segi ek nornir vera,
eigu-t þær ætt saman;
sumar eru áskunngar,
sumar alfkunngar,
sumar dætr Dvalins.”
Sigurth spake:
12. “Tell me then, Fafnir,
for wise thou art famed,
And much thou knowest now:
Who are the Norns
who are helpful in need,
And the babe from the mother bring?”
Fafnir spake:
13. “Of many births
the Norns must be,
Nor one in race they were;
Some to gods, others
to elves are kin,
And Dvalin’s daughters some.”

It appears from Völuspá and Vafþrúðnismál that the three main norns were not originally goddesses but giantesses (Jotuns), and that their arrival ended the early days of bliss for the gods, but that they come for the good of mankind.

Norns
The Norns
Arthur Rackham.

Völuspá relates that three giantesses of huge might are reported to have arrived to the gods from Jotunheim:

8. Tefldu í túni,
teitir váru,
var þeim vettergis
vant ór gulli,
uns þrjár kvámu
þursa meyjar
ámáttkar mjök
ór Jötunheimum.
8. In their dwellings at peace
they played at tables,
Of gold no lack
did the gods then know,–
Till thither came
up giant-maids three,
Huge of might,
out of Jotunheim.

Vafþrúðnismál probably refers to the norns when it talks of maiden giantesses who arrive to protect the people of earth as protective spirits (hamingjas)

49. “Þríar þjóðár
falla þorp yfir
meyja Mögþrasis;
hamingjur einar
þær er í heimi eru,
þó þær með jötnum alask.”
49. O’er people’s dwellings
three descend
of Mögthrasir’s maidens,
the sole Hamingiur
who are in the world,
although with Jötuns nurtured.

The Völuspá contains the names of the three main Norns referring to them as maidens like Vafþrúðnismál probably does:

20. Þaðan koma meyjar
margs vitandi
þrjár ór þeim sæ,
er und þolli stendr;
Urð hétu eina,
aðra Verðandi,
– skáru á skíði, –
Skuld ina þriðju;
þær lög lögðu,
þær líf kuru
alda börnum,
örlög seggja.
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.
Norns
The Norns
Arthur Rackham.
Norns
The Norns Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld under the world oak Yggdrasil (1882) by Ludwig Burger.

Helgakviða Hundingsbana I

The norns visited each newly born child to allot his or her future, and in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, the hero Helgi Hundingsbane has just been born and norns arrive at the homestead:

2. Nótt varð í bæ,
nornir kómu,
þær er öðlingi
aldr of skópu;
þann báðu fylki
frægstan verða
ok buðlunga
beztan þykkja.
3. Sneru þær af afli
örlögþáttu,
þá er borgir braut
í Bráluni;
þær of greiddu
gullin símu
ok und mánasal
miðjan festu.
4. Þær austr ok vestr
enda fálu,
þar átti lofðungr
land á milli;
brá nift Nera
á norðrvega
einni festi,
ey bað hon halda.
2. ‘Twas night in the dwelling,
and Norns there came,
Who shaped the life
of the lofty one;
They bade him most famed
of fighters all
And best of princes
ever to be.
3. Mightily wove they
the web of fate,
While Bralund’s towns
were trembling all;
And there the golden
threads they wove,
And in the moon’s hall
fast they made them.
4. East and west
the ends they hid,
In the middle the hero
should have his land;
And Neri’s kinswoman
northward cast
A chain, and bade it
firm ever to be.

Helgakviða Hundingsbana II

In Helgakviða Hundingsbana II, Helgi Hundingsbane blames the norns for the fact that he had to kill Sigrún’s father Högni and brother Bragi in order to wed her:

26 “Er-at þér at öllu,
alvitr, gefit,
– þó kveð ek nökkvi
nornir valda -:
fellu í morgun
at Frekasteini
Bragi ok Högni,
varð ek bani þeira.
“Maid, not fair
is all thy fortune,
The Norris I blame
that this should be;
This morn there fell
at Frekastein
Bragi and Hogni
beneath my hand.
Norns
The Norns
Arthur Rackham.

Sigurðarkviða hin skamma

Another instance of Norns being blamed for an undesirable situation appears in Sigurðarkviða hin skamma, where the valkyrie Brynhild blames malevolent norns for her long yearning for the embrace of Sigurd:

7. Orð mæltak nú,
iðrumk eftir þess:
kván er hans Guðrún,
en ek Gunnars;
ljótar nornir
skópu oss langa þrá.”
7. “The word I have spoken;
soon shall I rue it,
His wife is Guthrun,
and Gunnar‘s am I;
Ill Norns set for me
long desire.”
Norns
“Norns” (1832) from Die Helden und Götter des Nordens, oder das Buch der Sagen

Guðrúnarkviða II

Brynhild’s solution was to have Gunnarr and his brothers, the lords of the Burgundians, kill Sigurd and afterwards to commit suicide in order to join Sigurd in the afterlife. Her brother Atli (Attila the Hun) avenged her death by killing the lords of the Burgundians, but since he was married to their sister Guðrún, Atli would soon be killed by her. In Guðrúnarkviða II, the Norns actively enter the series of events by informing Atli in a dream that his wife would kill him. The description of the dream begins with this stanza:

“Svá mik nýliga
nornir vekja,” –
vílsinnis spá
vildi, at ek réða, –
“hugða ek þik, Guðrún
Gjúka dóttir,
læblöndnum hjör
leggja mik í gögnum.”
39. “Now from sleep
the Norns have waked me
With visions of terror,–
To thee will I tell them;
Methought thou, Guthrun,
Gjuki’s daughter,
With poisoned blade
didst pierce my body.”

Guðrúnarhvöt

After having killed both her husband Atli and their sons, Guðrún blames the Norns for her misfortunes, as in Guðrúnarhvöt, where Guðrún talks of trying to escaping the wrath of the norns by trying to kill herself:

13. Gekk ek til strandar,
gröm vark nornum,
vilda ek hrinda
stríð grið þeira;
hófu mik, né drekkðu,
hávar bárur,
því ek land of sték,
at lifa skyldak.
13. “To the sea I went,
my heart full sore
For the Norns, whose wrath
I would now escape;
But the lofty billows
bore me undrowned,
Till to land I came,
so I longer must live.

Hamðismál

Guðrúnarhvöt deals with how Guðrún incited her sons to avenge the cruel death of their sister Svanhild. In Hamðismál, her sons’ expedition to the Gothic king Ermanaric to exact vengeance is fateful. Knowing that he is about to die at the hands of the Goths, her son Sörli talks of the cruelty of the norns:

29. “Ekki hygg ek okkr
vera ulfa dæmi,
at vit mynim sjalfir of sakask
sem grey norna,
þá er gráðug eru
í auðn of alin.
30. Vel höfum vit vegit,
stöndum á val Gotna,
ofan eggmóðum,
sem ernir á kvisti;
góðs höfum tírar fengit,
þótt skylim nú eða í gær deyja;
kveld lifir maðr ekki
eftir kvið norna.”
31. Þar fell Sörli
at salar gafli,
enn Hamðir hné
at húsbaki.
29. “In fashion of wolves
it befits us not
Amongst ourselves to strive,
Like the hounds of the Norns,
that nourished were
In greed mid wastes so grim.
30. “We have greatly fought,
o’er the Goths do we stand
By our blades laid low,
like eagles on branches;
Great our fame though we die
today or tomorrow;
None outlives the night
when the Norris have spoken.”
31. Then Sorli beside
the gable sank,
And Hamther fell
at the back of the house.
Norns
The Norns
C. E. Brock.

Sigrdrífumál

Since the norns were beings of ultimate power who were working in the dark, it should be no surprise that they could be referred to in charms, as they are by Sigrdrífa in Sigrdrífumál:

17. Á gleri ok á gulli
ok á gumna heillum,
í víni ok í virtri
ok vilisessi,
á Gugnis oddi
ok á Grana brjósti,
á nornar nagli
ok á nefi uglu.
17. On glass and on gold,
and on goodly charms,
In wine and in beer,
and on well-loved seats,
On Gungnir‘s point,
and on Grani‘s breast,
On the nails of Norns,
and the night-owl’s beak.

Prose Edda

In the part of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda which is called Gylfaginning, Gylfi, the king of Sweden, has arrived at Valhalla calling himself Gangleri. There, he receives an education in Norse religion from what is Odin in the shape of three men. They explain to Gylfi that there are three main norns, but also many others of various races, æsir, elves and dwarves:

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.”

The three main norns take water out of the well of Urd and water Yggdrasil:

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,–as is here said:

I know an Ash standing
called Yggdrasill,
A high tree sprinkled
with snow-white clay;
Thence come the dews
in the dale that fall–
It stands ever green
above Urdr’s Well.
That dew which falls from it onto the earth is called by men honey-dew, and thereon are bees nourished. Two fowls are fed in Urdr’s Well: they are called Swans, and from those fowls has come the race of birds which is so called.”

Snorri furthermore informs the reader that the youngest norn, Skuld, is in effect also a valkyrie, taking part in the selection of warriors from the slain:

These are called Valkyrs: them Odin sends to every battle; they determine men’s feyness and award victory. Gudr and Róta and the youngest Norn, she who is called Skuld, ride ever to take the slain and decide fights.

Legendary sagas

Some of the legendary sagas also contain references to the norns. The Hervarar saga contains a poem named Hlöðskviða, where the Gothic king Angantýr defeats a Hunnish invasion led by his Hunnish half-brother Hlöðr. Knowing that his sister, the shieldmaiden Hervör, is one of the casualties, Angantýr looks at his dead brother and laments the cruelty of the norns:

32. Bölvat er okkr, bróðir,
bani em ek þinn orðinn;
þat mun æ uppi;
illr er dómr norna.”
“We are cursed, kinsman,
your killer am I!
It will never be forgotten;
the Norns’ doom is evil.”

In younger legendary sagas, such as Norna-Gests þáttr and Hrólfs saga kraka, the norns appear to have been synonymous with völvas (witches, female shamans). In Norna-Gests þáttr, where they arrive at the birth of the hero to shape his destiny, the norns are not described as weaving the web of fate, instead Norna appears to be interchangeable and possibly a synonym of vala (völva).

One of the last legendary sagas to be written down, the Hrólfs saga kraka talks of the norns simply as evil witches. When the evil half-elven princess Skuld assembles her army to attack Hrólfr Kraki, it contains in addition to undead warriors, elves and norns.

Norns
…and the youngest Norn, she who is called Skuld, ride ever to take the slain and decide fights…Faroese stamp by Anker Eli Petersen depicting the Norns (2003).
Norns
This romantic representation of the norns depicts one of them (Verdandi according to the runes below) with wings, contrary to folklore.