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CHAPTER XVII: THE NORNS
The Three Fates
The Northern goddesses of fate, who were called Norns, were in nowise
subject to the other gods, who might neither question nor influence
their decrees. They were three sisters, probably descendants of the
giant Norvi, from whom sprang Nott (night). As soon as the Golden
Age was ended, and sin began to steal even into the heavenly homes of
Asgard, the Norns made their appearance under the great ash Yggdrasil,
and took up their abode near the Urdar fountain. According to some
mythologists, their mission was to warn the gods of future evil, to
bid them make good use of the present, and to teach them wholesome
lessons from the past.
These three sisters, whose names were Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, were
personifications of the past, present, and future. Their principal
occupations were to weave the web of fate, to sprinkle daily the sacred
tree with water from the Urdar fountain, and to put fresh clay around
its roots, that it might remain fresh and ever green.
"Thence come the maids
Who much do know;
Three from the hall
Beneath the tree;
One they named Was,
And Being next,
The third Shall be."
The Vцluspв (Henderson's tr.).
Some authorities further state that the Norns kept watch over
the golden apples which hung on the branches of the tree of life,
experience, and knowledge, allowing none but Idun to pick the fruit,
which was that with which the gods renewed their youth.
The Norns also fed and tenderly cared for two swans which swam over
the mirror-like surface of the Urdar fountain, and from this pair of
birds all the swans on earth are supposed to be descended. At times,
it is said, the Norns clothed themselves with swan plumage to visit
the earth, or sported like mermaids along the coast and in various
lakes and rivers, appearing to mortals, from time to time, to foretell
the future or give them sage advice.
The Norns' Web
The Norns sometimes wove webs so large that while one of the weavers
stood on a high mountain in the extreme east, another waded far out
into the western sea. The threads of their woof resembled cords,
and varied greatly in hue, according to the nature of the events
about to occur, and a black thread, tending from north to south, was
invariably considered an omen of death. As these sisters flashed the
shuttle to and fro, they chanted a solemn song. They did not seem to
weave according to their own wishes, but blindly, as if reluctantly
executing the wishes of Orlog, the eternal law of the universe, an
older and superior power, who apparently had neither beginning nor end.
Two of the Norns, Urd and Verdandi, were considered to be very
beneficent indeed, while the third, it is said, relentlessly undid
their work, and often, when nearly finished, tore it angrily to shreds,
scattering the remnants to the winds of heaven. As personifications
of time, the Norns were represented as sisters of different ages
and characters, Urd (Wurd, weird) appearing very old and decrepit,
continually looking backward, as if absorbed in contemplating past
events and people; Verdandi, the second sister, young, active, and
fearless, looked straight before her, while Skuld, the type of the
future, was generally represented as closely veiled, with head turned
in the direction opposite to where Urd was gazing, and holding a book
or scroll which had not yet been opened or unrolled.
These Norns were visited daily by the gods, who loved to consult them;
and even Odin himself frequently rode down to the Urdar fountain
to bespeak their aid, for they generally answered his questions,
maintaining silence only about his own fate and that of his fellow
"Rode he long and rode he fast.
First beneath the great Life Tree,
At the sacred Spring sought he
Urdar, Norna of the Past;
But her backward seeing eye
Could no knowledge now supply.
Across Verdandi's page there fell
Dark shades that ever woes foretell;
The shadows which 'round Asgard hung
Their baleful darkness o'er it flung;
The secret was not written there
Might save Valhal, the pure and fair.
Last youngest of the sisters three,
Skuld, Norna of Futurity,
Implored to speak, stood silent by,--
Averted was her tearful eye."
Valhalla (J. C. Jones).
Other Guardian Spirits
Besides the three principal Norns there were many others, far less
important, who seem to have been the guardian spirits of mankind,
to whom they frequently appeared, lavishing all manner of gifts
upon their favourites, and seldom failing to be present at births,
marriages, and deaths.
"Oh, manifold is their kindred, and who shall tell them all?
There are they that rule o'er men folk, and the stars that rise
Sigurd the Volsung (William Morris).
The Story of Nornagesta
On one occasion the three sisters visited Denmark, and entered the
dwelling of a nobleman as his first child came into the world. Entering
the apartment where the mother lay, the first Norn promised that the
child should be handsome and brave, and the second that he should be
prosperous and a great scald--predictions which filled the parents'
hearts with joy. Meantime news of what was taking place had gone
abroad, and the neighbours came thronging the apartment to such a
degree that the pressure of the curious crowd caused the third Norn
to be pushed rudely from her chair.
Angry at this insult, Skuld proudly rose and declared that her
sister's gifts should be of no avail, since she would decree that
the child should live only as long as the taper then burning near the
bedside. These ominous words filled the mother's heart with terror,
and she tremblingly clasped her babe closer to her breast, for the
taper was nearly burned out and its extinction could not be very long
delayed. The eldest Norn, however, had no intention of seeing her
prediction thus set at naught; but as she could not force her sister
to retract her words, she quickly seized the taper, put out the light,
and giving the smoking stump to the child's mother, bade her carefully
treasure it, and never light it again until her son was weary of life.
"In the mansion it was night:
The Norns came,
Who should the prince's
Sжmund's Edda (Thorpe's tr.).
The boy was named Nornagesta, in honour of the Norns, and grew up to
be as beautiful, brave, and talented as any mother could wish. When he
was old enough to comprehend the gravity of the trust his mother told
him the story of the Norns' visit, and placed in his hands the candle
end, which he treasured for many a year, placing it for safe-keeping
inside the frame of his harp. When his parents were dead, Nornagesta
wandered from place to place, taking part and distinguishing himself
in every battle, singing his heroic lays wherever he went. As he
was of an enthusiastic and poetic temperament, he did not soon weary
of life, and while other heroes grew wrinkled and old, he remained
young at heart and vigorous in frame. He therefore witnessed the
stirring deeds of the heroic ages, was the boon companion of the
ancient warriors, and after living three hundred years, saw the
belief in the old heathen gods gradually supplanted by the teachings
of Christian missionaries. Finally Nornagesta came to the court of
King Olaf Tryggvesson, who, according to his usual custom, converted
him almost by force, and compelled him to receive baptism. Then,
wishing to convince his people that the time for superstition was
past, the king forced the aged scald to produce and light the taper
which he had so carefully guarded for more than three centuries.
In spite of his recent conversion, Nornagesta anxiously watched the
flame as it flickered, and when, finally, it went out, he sank lifeless
to the ground, thus proving that in spite of the baptism just received,
he still believed in the prediction of the Norns.
In the middle ages, and even later, the Norns figure in many a story
or myth, appearing as fairies or witches, as, for instance, in the
tale of "the Sleeping Beauty," and Shakespeare's tragedy of Macbeth.
"1st Witch. When shall we three meet again,
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
2nd Witch. When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won:
3rd Witch. That will be ere the set of sun."
Sometimes the Norns bore the name of Vala, or prophetesses, for they
had the power of divination--a power which was held in great honour
by all the Northern races, who believed that it was restricted to
the female sex. The predictions of the Vala were never questioned,
and it is said that the Roman general Drusus was so terrified by the
appearance of Veleda, one of these prophetesses, who warned him not
to cross the Elbe, that he actually beat a retreat. She foretold his
approaching death, which indeed happened shortly after through a fall
from his steed.
These prophetesses, who were also known as Idises, Dises, or Hagedises,
officiated at the forest shrines and in the sacred groves, and
always accompanied invading armies. Riding ahead, or in the midst
of the host, they would vehemently urge the warriors on to victory,
and when the battle was over they would often cut the bloody-eagle
upon the bodies of the captives. The blood was collected into great
tubs, wherein the Dises plunged their naked arms up to the shoulders,
previous to joining in the wild dance with which the ceremony ended.
It is not to be wondered at that these women were greatly
feared. Sacrifices were offered to propitiate them, and it was only in
later times that they were degraded to the rank of witches, and sent to
join the demon host on the Brocken, or Blocksberg, on Valpurgisnacht.
Besides the Norns or Dises, who were also regarded as protective
deities, the Northmen ascribed to each human being a guardian spirit
named Fylgie, which attended him through life, either in human or
brute shape, and was invisible except at the moment of death by all
except the initiated few.
The allegorical meaning of the Norns and of their web of fate is too
patent to need explanation; still some mythologists have made them
demons of the air, and state that their web was the woof of clouds,
and that the bands of mists which they strung from rock to tree,
and from mountain to mountain, were ruthlessly torn apart by the
suddenly rising wind. Some authorities, moreover, declare that Skuld,
the third Norn, was at times a Valkyr, and at others personated the
goddess of death, the terrible Hel.