The Many Shapes & Sizes of the Norns
I find the Norns to be a interesting faction within the ancient Scandinavian belief system. As a follower of the Ásatrú religion I’m always excited when I find new books which help me further understand what I have already read on the subject. In this case the Norn Sisters are the subject.
From the books I have read my understanding is that the Norns are a specialty group of female Jötnar giants who carved the fate of mankind at the time of our individual births. For some reason (a pact or alliance) which I have not found a source for yet, the Æsir and Vanir gods are somehow okay with this practice. I can only speculate on this alliance between gods and giants, however I will refrain. In any case the Norns are many and three of them seem to be mentioned by name in the Eddas. These sisters are Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld; or a more basic explanation being Past, Present, and Future.
The three sisters sit a the base of the world tree, Yggdrasil, and carve the fates of mankind onto wooden staves. Every man, woman, and child has this pre-written destiny but that doesn’t mean it is fixed in stone. Anyone can altar their fate but it can be a hard road to travel in many cases. One way that this fate can be altered is with an intervention by a god or magical creature. Odin and Frigga are two well known beings who interfere in men’s destiny. One man may be destined to lose a battle and end up in boring Helheim; but with a little foul play from Battle-stirrer himself, this same human warrior may win the same battle and end up living the afterlife in Valhalla fighting by Odin’s side during Ragnarok.
I don’t want list every fact about the Norns, my goal today is to bring up a source I found that changes my understanding of the Norns in general. Again, my understanding was that the Norns were a faction of giant woman, some carving good fates for man, other not so good. Some of the Norns seem to be vindictive when dealing out destiny.
In the poem of Fafnismal, stanzas 12-16, after the young warrior Sigurth defeats the dragon Fafnir by laying in a hole and stabbing the firewurm in the heart as it slithers over top, the dragon gives this brief description of the Norns.
Sigurth: “Tell me, Fafnir, they say you are wise, and very knowledgeable, who are the Norns who govern childbirth and choose who mothers what child?”
Fafnir (the dragon): “There are various different kinds of Norns: they are not all of one family. Some are god-born, some are elves, others come from dwarves”.
Crawford, J. (2015). The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes. Page. 244.
So it seems, according the dragon Fafnir, the Norns are not distinctly Jötnar descendants. Their ranks seem to include women from across all nine realms. This may explain why in some versions of the Eddas non-humans have their fates locked into place as well. I would love to find more books and documentation on these alternate members of the Norn sisterhood. It would also be great to know why the gods take a hands-off approach to the practice of fate carving.
I will be doing more research on this matter.
Crawford, J. (2015). The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes. Indianapolis/Cambridge, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.