Who are the Nornir?

What we know from myth, history, and inspiration

Nornir1When one finds references to the Nornir (plural for "Norn", or "Fate") in old Norse writings, the word seems to refer to many different entities. On the one hand, there are references to a variety of Norns, sort of a lesser level of Fate employees, who are drawn from the ranks of many folk - the Aesir the Alfar, the Duergar, and human Dead. The idea seems to be that the female protective ancestral spirits (disir) of any race/tribe/family watch over a woman of their descent who is in labor, and scry the fate of the child being born. This would suggest that each family has Nornir of their own, depending on their descent. Those humans with nonhuman bloodlines might have nonhuman Nornir, but most will be pulled from their majority racial makeup.

On the other hand, there are the Three Norns, the women who seem to be in charge of the whole Fate apparatus in the Northern pantheons. They live at the Well of Wyrd, next to the first exposed tree-root of the World Tree, in Asgard. They are named Urd (That-Which-Is), Verdandi (That-Which-Is-Becoming), and Skuld (That-Which-Should-Be), and they are mentioned as "the mighty maids from Thursenheim", or Niflheim, home of the frost-thurses. Urd spins threads, Verdandi weaves them, and Skuld cuts them short. Sometimes they appear to look identical; sometimes they appear with different ages. Unlike the Moerae (the Greek Fates), Urd is the eldest and Skuld sometimes appears as a maiden (and has been said to ride with the Valkyries, to end the lives of warriors). Generally they do not manifest as beautiful, however; many who work with them report them as plain, almost dowdy women, focused on their work.

The fact that the Norns are frost-giantesses reifies the fact that Jotnar did not merely represent hostile forces to our ancestors, but also the ancient and immutable forces. To the ancients, the same force that burned down your hut or froze you in a blizzard or drowned you in the sea also implacably named your destiny and held you to it. Fate was in the same category as natural disaster, as far as they were concerned. All were the wild and untamed mysteries, and all were equally easy to fear and to respect, and to hold wisdom that even the more "human" Gods needed to learn.

The word Norn has an ambiguous etymology. Some claims have linked it to the Swedish dialect word nyrna, meaning "to inform secretly"; others trace it to the Indo-European root word ner meaning "twist" or "twine", referring to the Norns twisting the threads of fate. In Anglo-Saxon, Urd became Wyrd, and the Norns were referred to as the Wyrd Sisters, wyrd taking on the meaning of one's ultimate destiny.

Nornir4It has been speculated that the three goddesses of the Saami people - Sarahkka, Juoksaahkka and Uksaahkka - could have been the origins of the three Nornir. In the Norse sagas, it is told that the Nornir were there before the Aesir came, deciding the fate of all men, weaving the web of Wyrd. (If this was the case, it would suggest that they were of the frost-giants born in Niflheim, perhaps of the second generation from Ymir, before the appearance of Buri. Some spirit-workers have gained inspiration that Urda, the eldest Norn, is actually the first frost-giantess born from Ymir and thus the progenitress of the race.) Like the Saami ahkka, the Norns were intimately connected to pregnancy, birth and rebirth. A tradition among the Saami is that a woman gets “Sarahkka porridge” as her first meal after having given birth; among the ancient Nordic people, “Nornagretur” - Norn-groat porridge - served the same function. It is likely that all the intermarriage between the Norse and the Saami people must have brought in these Saami customs. The intermarriage may have begun even before the melding of the Indo-Europeans and the aboriginal Scandinavians; there are several words in the Saami tongues that stem from early Indo-European, and it is not known at what point the two first crossed; certainly the Saami people would have been contacted first, before the aboriginals, by a people moving west across northern Europe.

In some sagas, such as Helgakvida Hundingsbana, the Nornir are said to spin, weave, and cut the threads of Fate just as the Greek Moerae might do. In other primary sources, they are said to carve runes upon the World Tree to show people's fates, and also to pour the water from the Urdabrunnr, or Well of Wyrd, down the trunk of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The water of Urdabrunnr was said to be so pure and strong that anything put into it was bleached white. By watering the root of the Tree, they keep it nourished, and the patterns of the water running down also showed the patterns of Fate.