One of the key concepts of the worldview of the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples was their intriguing and extraordinarily unique view of destiny (Old Norse Urðr or Örlög, Old English Wyrd, Old Saxon Wurd, Old High German Wurt, Proto-Germanic *Wurðiz). It shares the same Indo-European origin as the Greek concept of fate and the Hindu concept of karma, but is as different from fate or karma as either of those concepts are from each other. Due to this uniqueness, it’s also one of the hardest parts of the indigenous Germanic worldview for modern people to understand. However, the rewards of understanding this concept are well worth the effort.
The starting point for understanding the Germanic view of destiny is the mythological image of Yggdrasil and the Well of Urd. Yggdrasil is a tree that stands at the center of the cosmos and holds the Nine Worlds, the dwelling-places of humans, gods, and all other beings, in its branches and roots. It grows from the Well of Urd (Urðr), which could just as aptly be called the “Well of Destiny.” Water is central to the image; the waters of the well nourish the tree, whose evergreen leaves then shed dewdrops into the well.
The water cycle in this image expresses a circular passage of time. The well, which corresponds to the past, influences the growth of the tree, which corresponds to the present. But then, unlike in our modern, linear conception of time, the present then returns to the past – even retroactively changing it! This is the significance of the dewdrops that fall back into the well. (A fuller discussion of this dynamic, including references, can be found here.)
Destiny cycles through the image, following the course of the water. As one scholar puts it, destiny “governs the working out of the past into the present (or, more accurately, the working in of the present into the past).” In other words, destiny is the often-inscrutable force that causes the past to exert its particular influences upon the present, which, in this image, necessarily also includes the influence of the present upon the past and, thereby, the potential for a new and different present.
Beyond Free Will and Fate
In the Well of Urd live the Norns, three wise women who “carve into the tree the lives and destinies of children.” This is another expression of the influence of the past (the well) upon the present (the tree). All of the beings who live in the Nine Worlds of Yggdrasil, from humans to gods to salamanders, are subject to these carvings. However – and this is the crucial point to be grasped – what the Norns carve into the tree is the earliest form of the destinies of the beings who inhabit the Nine Worlds, but not their only possible form. Unlike the pronouncements of the Greek Fates, the words of the Norns are not necessarily absolute. The present (the tree) also influences the past (the well); having been written, the words carved by the Norns can be rewritten. All beings who are subject to destiny have some degree of power over their own destiny and the destiny of others. Everything and everyone uses this power passively, in some small way, merely by being a stopping-point in the course the water takes as it cycles through the well and the tree, thereby exerting some measure of influence over that course.
Some, however, take this process into their own hands and shape destiny more actively and more potently. Discerning and shaping destiny is the central concern of heathen Germanic magic. While there may be only three Norns with a capital “N,” there are countless norns with a lowercase “n” – norn is an Old Norse word for a generic practitioner of magic. The Norns may be the shapers of destiny par excellence, but they are far from the only beings capable of altering the course of destiny as it flows through the Well of Urd and Yggdrasil. They are one stopping-point in a vast network of countless other stopping-points, albeit the most significant one in the whole system.
Just as no life’s course is entirely determined by the Norns, no life’s course is entirely free from the influence of the Norns and one’s fellow inhabitants of the Nine Worlds. To return to the image of weaving, all life is an interconnected web, where the slightest thrumming of one strand can cause the whole web to tremble. Even the most self-willed of actions, those that exert the most powerful influence upon destiny, are effective precisely because they are successful adaptations to the context within which they are taken. Moreover, in an animistic worldview, “self” and “other” are relative distinctions rather than absolute ones. Absolute freedom is impossible, as is absolute slavery. Accordingly, there is no absolutely free will, just as there is no absolutely unalterable fate. Instead, life is lived somewhere in the enormous range of possibilities that lies between these two extremes.
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 Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 475.
 Bauschatz, Paul C. 1982. The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture. p. 11.
 The Poetic Edda. Völuspá. Stanza 20. My own translation.
 Heide, Eldar. 2006. Spinning Seiðr. In Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes and Interactions. Edited by Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere. p. 166.