17 May 2009

Prayer Beads, Week 2: The Norns

The Norns appear repeatedly throughout the prayer beads, forming spacers between each of the major groups.

By the name of Urd, I seek the spinning thread of my true path.
By the name of Verdandi, I weave my life with the threads of those I love.
By the name of Skuld, I make peace with the blade of my final wyrd.

All three make an appearance in Völuspá:

Þaðan koma meyjar
margs vitandi
þrjár, ór þeim sal
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.
Thence come maidens
much knowing
three from the hall
which under that tree stands;
Urd hight the one,
the second Verdandi,
on a tablet they graved,
Skuld the third;
Laws they established,
life allotted
to the sons of men,
destinies pronounced.

They are said to weave the faits of men, the easiest visualization for which is as a large, multi-dimensional tapestry that incorporates many threads.


By the name of Urd, I seek the spinning thread of my true path.

Her name means "Fate" and she is one of the three Norns in charge of weaving the fates of men. A bit of a digression: In Gylfaginning we see that the three most famous Norns named here are not the only ones:

Sundurbornar mjög
hygg eg að nornir sé,
eigut þær ætt saman;
sumar eru áskunnar,
sumar eru álfkunnar,
sumar dætur Dvalins.
Far asunder, I think,
The norns are born,
They are not of the same race.
Some are of the asas,
Some are of the elves,
Somea are daughters of Dvalin.

The "spinning thread of my true path" deliberately invokes the image of a spindle: spinning many fibers into a single strand. Our wyrd is active--constantly spinning, forever tied in with others at the level of other dimensions. This serves as a reminder of that: Wyrd can change.

By saying that you seek your true path, you are committing yourself to finding your Purpose, whatever that may be. This is a large commitment, but one that humans are preoccupied with. Quoting Nathaniel Branden in his essay The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

We humans have a need to feel we understand the world in which we live. We have a need to make sense out of our experience. We have a need for some intelligible portrait of who we are as human beings and what our lives are or should be about. In short, we have a need for a philosophical vision of reality.

But twentieth-century philosophy has almost totally backed off from the responsibility of offering such a vision or addressing itself to the kind of questions human beings struggle with in the course of their existence. Twentieth-century philosophy typically scorns system building. The problems to which it addresses itself grow smaller and smaller and more and more remote from human experience. At their philosophical conferences and conventions, philosophers explicitly acknowledge that they have nothing of practical value to offer anyone. This is not my accusation; they announce it themselves.

During the same period of history, the twentieth century, orthodox religion has lost more and more of its hold over people’s minds and lives. It is perceived as more and more irrelevant. Its demise as a cultural force really began with the Renaissance and has been declining ever since.

But the need for answers persists. The need for values by which to guide our lives remains unabated. The hunger for intelligibility is as strong as it ever was. The world around us is more and more confusing, more and more frightening; the need to understand it cries out in anguish.

We long for purpose in our lives, to find our "True Path" but the challenge isn't in finding it: It is in committing yourself to seek it. This is not a trivial promise, and it is not one to be made lightly.


By the name of Verdandi, I weave my life with the threads of those I love.

Verðandi, second of the Norns, has a name that means something to the effect of "happening" or "present." The word is the present tense of verða: To Become. This brings mind the image of the "Eternal Now." By saying that I "weave my life with the threads of those I love," I am recognizing the importance of others in my life. It is a reminder that I cannot make it alone. A single thread is always very weak, but a tapestry is always much stronger.

I saw a quote by Jane Howard recently in The Tattered Cover which said:

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.

This to me is the essence of this prayer: a reminder that the tapestry of my life cannot be woven alone.


By the name of Skuld, I make peace with the blade of my final wyrd.

Often portrayed as "future," she is the youngest of the three and her name means "debt." Interestingly, she is portrayed as a Valkyrie in Völuspá (where she is seen holding a shield), Gylfaginning, and Nafnaþulur.

Gylfaginning states:

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.

How appropriate that it is in her name that we "make peace with the blade of our final wyrd." At the end of it all, "make peace" we must. It says in Hávamál:

Veit-a hinn
er vettki veit,
margr verðr af aurum api;
maður er auðigr,
annar óauðigr,
skyli-t þann vítka váar.

Deyr fé,
deyja frændr,
deyr sjalfr it sama,
en orðstírr
deyr aldregi
hveim er sér góðan getr.
Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
fair fame of one who has earned.

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
the doom on each one dead.

(On a side note, where I don't have the Old Norse I use Icelandic).

So we must, at the end, recognize that as mutable as fate is in the Norse compared to other systems, over a long enough timeline the probability of survival drops to zero.

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