Who Were the Norns in Norse Mythology?
Who Were the Norns in Norse Mythology?
You might think you know the goddesses of fate in Norse mythology, but even the Norse people themselves could not agree on the Norns.
The Norse people believed that destiny was preordained. From the events of a single person’s life to the way in which the world would end, the unchangeability of fate was a major theme in their mythology.
The Norns were the goddesses who oversaw this fate. From the moment a person was born, the Norns set down the course of their life.
Beyond this broad function, however, there seems to have been little agreement regarding who the Norns were and how they laid out a person’s destiny. Even the number of Norns varied in the telling.
The traditional image is of three goddesses who spin fate in an elaborate, twisting tapestry of interconnected threads. The Norns are often cited as an example of the tripartite goddess archetype in European culture.
This image, however, may have been completely invented long after the Viking Age. The number, identities, and actions of the Norns have been a subject of debate for over a thousand years!
The Norns and Destiny
The Norse people believed that the Norns both foretold and controlled the fate of every living person. Even the gods were subject to the will of these powerful female beings.
Exactly what the Norns were, however, was subject to debate.
One poem in the Poetic Edda claims that the Norns were born among the jötnar, or giants. It said, however, that they made up a separate race called the Haminguir.
Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, however, says that the Norns were drawn from every race. Some were born among the Aesir, others were elves, and others still were “Dvalinn’s daughters,” or dwarves.
How many Norns existed was also the subject of some disagreement.
Most Norse sourced implied that there were many Norns. Some were good and some were evil, so a person’s fate depended entirely on what Norn governed his life.
One of these Norns was believed to visit each child moments after its birth. At that time, the Norn would set the child’s destiny.
Some poems, however, claimed that there were only three Norns. This trio of women is the version most often shown in art and literature from after the Norse era.
Sturluson reconciles these two traditions by claiming that there are many minor Norns, but three primary ones. He names them as Urðr (Fate), Verðandi (What is Happening), and Skuld ([What] Should Be).
These three Norns, according to the Prose Edda, live beside the Well of Urðr beside one of Yggdrasil’s roots. Each day they water the world tree and pour sand over its roots to keep it healthy.
The three Norns were said to physically create fate, although the manner in which they did this is also unclear.
Many interpretations hold that the Norns wove threads of fate into an elaborate tapestry. Fate was difficult to change or foretell because the woven threads crossed and knotted in intricate patterns.
When a child was born, a new thread would be added to the tapestry. At death, a person’s thread would be cut.
Other Norse sources, however, had the Norns create fate in different ways. In some, they carved fate into Yggdrasil’s trunk, while in others they wrote it in another place.
While the exact nature and behavior of the Norns were never fully understood written records make it clear that the Norse people believed that the goddesses controlled their destinies. The Norns preordained every aspect of a person’s life and no one, not even Odin, could change what they had proclaimed.
My Modern Interpretation
Because so many descriptions were given for the Norns, at least as many modern interpretations exist for them.
Most scholars have focused on the three Norns specified in the Eddas. In them, they see a widespread Indo-European archetype.
Based on the common translations of their names, Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld are often interpreted as representing the past, present, and future.
They are also often represented as a three-part goddess in an archetype often called the Mother, Maiden, and Crone. These three stages of life are sometimes used to symbolize the present, past, and future as well.
The three Norns are one of many such trinities of goddesses who control fate in Indo-European mythology. Most famously, the Greek Moirai are often known simply as the Fates and are sometimes depicted in the same way.
Some historians, however, believe that the Norns too closely resemble the Greco-Roman Fates for them to have developed independently. They point to the contradictions that exist in Norse poems regarding the number of Norns.
Three Norns are only specified in later works. The Prose Edda and Poetic Edda both drew from older source materials, but were not written until the 13th century.
By this time, Northern writers were much more familiar with other European cultures than they had been in the 8th or 9th century when the Viking Age was at its peak. Snorri Sturluson shows clearly in his writing that he has familiarity with Greek myths such as the Trojan War and the Sibyl.
Many historians now believe, therefore, that the existence of three primary Norns was introduced by later writers who had become familiar with the Greek Moirai. Earlier in Norse culture, the Norns were written of as being both numerous and anonymous.
The image of the Norns as weavers may have also been influenced by the Moirai. This idea, however, is hinted at enough elsewhere to have possibly been of Norse origin.
Practitioners of seidr magic, which was concerned with destiny and fate, often carried distaffs as a sign of their vocation. These tools were used in weaving, so the fact that they were symbols of magic indicates that some connection between fate and thread may have been believed to exist.
This could show that, even if the imagery of the three goddesses was adopted later, the idea of fate as a tapestry was a widespread one in Indo-European cultures.
To further complicate the nature of the Norns for modern readers, Norse writing made little distinction between the many types of dísir, or supernatural spirits. Even Snorri Sturluson wrote that Norn, Valkyrie, and Asynjur (Aesir goddess) could be used almost interchangeably.
It is possible that there was no true distinction between the Norns and some of the other female spirits of Norse mythology. While we now envision three weavers of fate, they may have been the same characters as the warrior Valkyries and other minor goddesses of the pantheon.
The Norns were the Norse goddesses of fate.
They are often depicted as a group of three deities who live beside the Well of Fate. Like the Greek Moirai, they weave the threads of individual fates into an elaborate tapestry.
This image, however, may not be similar to the Greek Moirai simply because they share an origin. While scholars have often interpreted the Norns in the context of this archetype, many modern historians believe that the trio of spinners is a later invention meant to resemble the Greco-Roman model.
Early Norse writings claim that there were many Norns who belonged to several different races. They could be benevolent or cruel, so the trajectory of a person’s life largely depended on the individual Norn that created his or her fate.