Sunday, 5 January 2014

Wyrd / Fate

Modern statues of the Nornir at Ribe, Dk.

 The concept of an all-powerful Fate or Destiny is fundamental, not only to the Anglo-Saxon world view but of Indo-European philosophy generally.
The word ‘wyrd’ occurs no less than nine times in Beowulf, where it is used to denote ‘omnipotent fate or destiny’, and its use reveals much about Anglo-Saxon beliefs. The Anglo-Saxon understanding of 'wyrd', and the related but subtly different Norse equivalent is worth discussing.

"Wyrd bið ful aræd"  
Fate is wholly inexorable -‘The Wanderer
    .                     __________________
"þrymmas syndan Cristes myccle, wyrd byð swiðost"
The glories of Christ are great, Wyrd is strongest of all  -‘The Gnomic Verses’
.                       ____________________

The concept of an all-powerful Fate or Destiny is fundamental, not only to the Anglo-Saxon world view but of Indo-European philosophy generally. The word ‘wyrd’ occurs no less than nine times in Beowulf, where it is used to denote ‘omnipotent fate or destiny’.

However, to the Anglo-Saxon, Wyrd was no impersonal force but one of three sisters, who spun out the thread of a man’s life, measured out its length, then fatally severed it.

As the idea of these three implacable sisters exists in some form or other across the whole of Europe, it is likely that it is an ancient one dating back at least into the European Bronze Age. In Ancient Greece, the Fates were called the Moirai - meaning ‘apportioners’ and comprise Clotho (the 'spinner' who spun the thread of life), Lachesis (the 'alloter' who measured it) and Atropos (the 'unturnable' who finally snapped or cut it.). The white-garbed Moirai were the daughters of Night and lived in a cave by a pool. The Romans called the Fates the ‘Parcae’ and named them Nona, Decima and Morta, they also spun the web of men’s lives. The Norse Eddas tell of the three Nornir; Urðr (-‘that which has come to pass’), Verðandi (-‘that which is in the process of happening) and Skuld (-‘that which needs to come to pass).

The collective Old English name for the three Fates has been lost, but there is little doubt that the Early English thought of them as being three sisters. Shakespeare's ‘Macbeth’ draws on Raphael Holinshed's history of Britain, (1587). In Holinshed, Macbeth and Banquo encounter "three women in strange and wild apparel, resembling creatures of elder world" who hail the men with glowing prophecies and then vanish "immediately out of their sight." Holinshed observes that "the common opinion was that these women were ... the Weird Sisters, … the goddesses of destiny".

The principal Anglo-Saxon goddess of Fate was Wyrd. The name is a feminine verbal noun derived from the Old English weorðan, meaning ‘to come to pass / to become’ which itself derives from the proto-Germanic *wurþ- of the same meaning and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *wert- ‘to turn, wind’.

The names of the other two sisters have also been lost to English tradition. Now the Old Norse Urðr is clearly cognate with the Anglo-Saxon Wyrd so one might expect the other two sisters to be called *Weorðend and *Sculd but there is no evidence for these names. However Old English literature does retain the name ‘Metod’ as a synonym for the Christian God and, although often glossed as meaning ‘ruler or creator’, its actual meaning is ‘one who measures or metes out’. The word derives from the proto-Germanic *metana - to measure and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *med- to measure.

The word ‘Metod’ is used twice in ‘Beowulf’; firstly when describing God’s judgement of Grendel:
ac hé hine feor forwræc metod for þý máne
-for He drove him far away, the Ruler, for this crime...   (line 110)
And, later...
eald metod 
-that Old Measurer of Fate    (line 945)
There seems little doubt that the original meaning of Metod was fate or destiny. In the Anglo-Saxon Riming Poem, from the Exeter Book, the narrator says of his life circumstances;
Me þæt wyrd gewæf
-wyrd wove this for me.
This makes it very clear that Wyrd was thought of as weaving the web of a man’s destiny. Similarly, Wyrd is perceived as spinning with a drop spindle. As the fibres of fate turn, they twist together and become the thread of destiny.

It is possible, that Fate has preserved one visual representation of the three Fatal Sisters. The famous Franks Casket’s right panel (the Bargello panel- see below), has on the right-hand side a triad of hooded figures which may portray the Sisters.The runic text is cryptic in the extreme but one reading gives:
Her Hos sitiþ on harmberga
agl[.] drigiþ swa hiræ Ertae gisgraf
sarden sorga and sefa torna.
risci / wudu / bita
Here Hos sits on the sorrow-mound;
She suffers distress as Ertae had imposed it upon her,
a wretched den of sorrows and of torments of mind.
rushes / wood / biter.
However, it would be brave to conclude that 'Ertae' is the lost name for the three sisters. The three figures look similar to depictions of the Celtic triple goddess. ‘Genii Cucullati’ are figures found in religious sculpture across the Romano-Celtic world.

'Bargello Panel' of the Franks Casket, showing three figures (right).

It must be suspected that the pre-Christian English often perceived the implacable goddesses of destiny in other than benign terms. Certainly the fatalistic Norse did which is amply demonstrated by this section from Njal’s Saga. Here is described how a number of women set up a loom with men’s severed heads for weights, slimy entrails for thread and a naked sword as the shuttle. The women sing a song called the Darroðarljóð (- a prophecy concerning the outcome of the Battle of Clanarf fought outside Dublin in 1014 CE). There is clear conflation here between the Valkyries who choose the slain and the Norns who spin the web of fate.

“Blood rains from the cloudy web
On the broad loom of slaughter.
The web of man grey as armour
Is now being woven; the Valkyries
Will cross it with a crimson weft.
The warp is made of human entrails;
Human heads are used as heddle-weights;
The heddle rods are blood-wet spears;
The shafts are iron-bound and arrows are the shuttles.
With swords we will weave this web of battle.
The Valkyries go weaving with drawn swords,
Hild and Hjorthrimul, Sanngrid and Svipul.
Spears will shatter shields will splinter,
Swords will gnaw like wolves through armour.
Let us now wind the web of war
Which the young king once waged.
Let us advance and wade through the ranks,
Where friends of ours are exchanging blows.
Let us now wind the web of war
And then follow the king to battle
Gunn and Gondul can see there
The blood-spattered shields that guarded the king.
Let us now wind the web of war
Where the warrior banners are forging forward
Let his life not be taken;
Only the Valkyries can choose the slain.
Lands will be ruled by new peoples
Who once inhabited outlying head-lands.
We pronounce a great king destined to die;
Now an earl is felled by spears.
The men of Ireland will suffer a grief
That will never grow old in the minds of men.
The web is now woven and the battlefield reddened;
The news of disaster will spread through lands.
It is horrible now to look around
As a blood-red cloud darkens the sky.
The heavens are stained with the blood of men,
As the Valkyries sing their song.
We sang well victory songs
For the young king; hail to our singing!
Let him who listens to our Valkyrie song
Learn it well and tell it to others.
Let us ride our horses hard on bare backs,
With swords unsheathed away from here! "
And then they tore the woven cloth from the loom and ripped it to pieces, each keeping the shred she held in her hands... The women mounted their horses and rode away, six to the south and six to the north.”
It has often been said that the Anglo-Saxon race were (and probably still are) fatalists. Certainly, in those early days when one’s very continuing existence depended on ongoing decent harvests, avoiding sickness and good luck in battle, men believed that at a predestined time they were doomed to die and there was nothing they could do to avert it. In more modern times, this philosophy was seen in the trenches of the First World War where battle-hardened soldiers, who had witnessed the mass extermination of friends and comrades, developed a protective morbid sense of resignation that nothing could deter death. In the troops' phraseology, it would come when "their number was up."

Despite this the Beowulf poet observed that:
Wyrd oft nereð unfægne eorl, þonne his ellen deah!
Fate often saves an undoomed hero while his zeal thrives.
The implication is that while a man's courage held out, he had a good chance of survival since Wyrd would often work to help such a man, as long as he was not ‘fey’; on the other hand, if a man was doomed then not even his courage could help him against what was destined to be.

“The Lost Gods of England” by Brian Branston
Translation of Darroðarljóð from ‘The Viking Answer-Lady’.


Richard Denning said...

Good article. Interesting to consider that the idea of fate is still buried away in the background of ideas like "my number us up"

Hu McCulloch said...

Great post!

It seems to me that the Franks Casket Norns are contemplating a crystal ball. Is this possible, or would it be an anachronism?

According to the Nibelungenlied, or at least Wagner's version of it, the earth goddess Erta is the mother of the Norns. In fact, it is Erta who ordains fate, and her daughters merely implement it. IMHO, "Ertae" on the Franks Casket is just an AS version of the same name, whose modern form is Eartha.

For a new take on the Franks Casket and a photo of the actual Bargello panel (not its cast), see my web essay at http://www.econ.ohio-state.edu/jhm/arch/FranksCasket/ .

- Hu McCulloch

Dr Andrew Thompson said...

Dear Hu,
Reply to Hu McCulloch
Your comment about the Franks Casket figures holding a crystal ball is really intriguing. As I mentioned in my earlier post on crystal lenses (http://thethegns.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/did-anglo-saxons-use-crystal-lenses.html) rock-crystal balls have been found in high status Anglo-Saxon graves dating to the 6-7th century CE. They were probably imported from continental Europe. The most famous example was found as part of the grave-goods in Childeric’s tomb. No-one knows what they were used for, if anything. The classic scrying crystal-ball, which would have inspired Tolkien’s palantír, was probably a little larger than the 1½ inch Anglo-Saxon ones.
Like you, I thought about Wagner’s Erda / Erde. As you know, the Old English name would have been Eorþe, from the Proto-Germanic *erþo. Your suggestion is really tempting but must remain speculative, in my view.
Thank you for directing me to your web-essay on the Franks Casket, which I found most interesting. I agree it is a shame all the pieces are not together but frankly, the British Museum are nor giving much honour to it at the moment, although I hope when the new exhibition of Early Medieval opens in the spring, that this situation will be rectified.
Wæs þu hal !