One of a shaman’s roles is to intercede with the spirits. It may be to ask the master spirits of game animals to give some of their children to the hunters, it may be to ask the spirits of the rain to swell the rivers or it may be to ask the plants to provide medicine to the sick. The shaman works with the spirits of the Earth to make life harmonious not only for the people but to preserve life for all beings. The shaman does this with the understanding that all time, all places and all lives are interwoven.
Mythology and folklore may be seen as a way a culture explains the nature of their cosmos. Several key features of Norse myths seem to preserve remnants of the earlier shamanic culture. Firstly, the cosmological landscape of Norse mythology is multi-leveled. Secondly, altering consciousness and undertaking a spiritual journey to seek wisdom are pivotal elements for the role of Viking seers and to their Seeker-God, Óðinn. Lastly, female figures have a particularly primal significance—especially in terms of time, cycles and prophesy.
In her role as the Goddess of Prophesy, Freyja visits the Norns to discover the patterns that weave the nature of reality. The Norns are mentioned in medieval Icelandic texts. The following lines are from the collection of Old Norse poems known as the Poetic Edda. These poems, which were most likely originally part of an oral tradition, were preserved in a thirteenth-century Icelandic manuscript known as the Konungsbók or Codex Regius. The section below is verse nineteen and twenty from the Völuspá or Prophesy of the Seeress.
(This translation is my own that is based on the work done by Paul C. Bauschatz in his The Well and the Tree, World and Time in Early Germanic Culture. (Amherst, MA; University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.) and Henry Adams Bellows’ version in The Poetic Edda, , found at sacred-texts.com.)
The maidens that are referred to in the text are the three Norns. These beings are said to be incredibly wise sisters residing at the base of the Norse World Tree, Yggdrssil. They are so powerful that even the gods fear them. Urð is the eldest, Verðandi the younger and Skuld the youngest. They reside near a well, a spring or a fresh water sea named Urðarbrunnr. They are responsible for nurturing the Great Tree that supports and contains all of the realms of spirit and matter.
Joined in action at the foundation that unites and holds all the realms of reality, the Norns exist outside the influence of the gods, as they are jötunn. By describing the Norns as jötunn or giantesses, it means that they were perceived to be primordial beings who predate all others and so are more powerful that the gods and goddesses. In other words, while a deity like Freyja held sway over the sky, landscape, nature and the world of men as the seasons or cycles of Life, the Norns were responsible for larger patterns that influenced the lives of the gods. They perceive the patterns that lie beyond both divine and human awareness. Their status above gods and humans suggests that those that created these mythic stories perceived the paramount importance of cosmic cycles. By that I mean, those cycles of events that are beyond the range human memory or calculations.
Indeed, most of the changes that we experience as sudden and unexpected are not actually anomalous or abnormal. More often that not, we have the evidence that they are either so unpredictably irregular in their occurrence or repeated in cycles that are so long they are beyond the collective memory range of the people who experience them.(1)
Given the scope of the cataclysms that our ancestors experienced this makes complete sense. In order to come to terms with such catastrophes, it would have been important to believe that some form of universal order existed. How else could large-scale and chaos-producing events like wild swings in climate, earthquakes, tsunamis and other cosmic events such as comet or meteoric collisions be explained? These events would have to be part of a larger reality that lies beyond the vision of human beings and even that of the gods.
Based upon an etymological examination of their names, author Paul C. Bauschatz suggests that the Norns’ individual roles are aspects of one task; with Urðr reflecting actions that are full, clear and observable. In other words, actions that have come to fruition and are accomplished. Verðandi may be seen as the process that produces what Urðr completes. It is as if Verðandi is the mechanism or active principle of Urðr’s creativity. As Skuld is involved with necessary or obligatory action—that which must become–she is different from the other two Norns.(2)
While I agree that their tasks seem to flow from one to the next, I believe that Bauschatz may have misinterpreted the direction of their actions. With this in mind, Urð may be seen as the moment of manifestation—when a quantum vibration becomes physical matter. Verðandi is the progression or unfolding of that matter’s existence and Skuld represents the structures or requirements that define the course of that progression. From this perspective, the last few lines of this section of the Völuspá, “Þær lög lögðu, þær líf kuru alda börnum, ørlög seggja” would be better translated as, “Layers of reality they brought forth, describing the cycles of Time and speaking the primal patterns of the Cosmos.”(3)
Scholars suggest that the line of the Völuspá, “skáru á skíði” (“on the wood they scored”) refers to carving runes. This is one way to suggest that the Norns transform intangible energies into the physical reality in the same way the vibrations of speech are captured in a written alphabet. However, since our ancestors saw the world in terms of cycles, the flow of the Norns’ creative energies were most likely circular or multidirectional. They have an ability to continuously manifest and unravel the nature of our reality.(4) In that interpretation, the “wood” they score may actually be referring to the tree of Life, Yggdrasil. This would be a perfect metaphor for how Life is always being rewritten or remolded into new forms.
The Three may be One
Among the Norns, Urð appears to hold a more prominent place. It is she who is spoken about most often in Norse/Germanic mythic texts. Her name is the same as the word used to describe the action of the Norns. Urð is also referred to as Urðr. The word Urð or Urðr in Old Norse, wyrd in Old English and wurd in Old Saxon all have a common etymological origin. The Proto-Indo-European root word is wert, which means, “to turn, rotate.” It is she who is the cycle that takes the quantum vibrations of all possibility and transforms them into reality. This process that is continually making and remaking our reality is Urð’s domain. She is the point between formless and matter–the fulcrum on which creation depends.
©2016 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Evelyn C. Rysdyk is the author of several noted books on shamanism including, The Norse Shaman, Spirit Walking: A Course In Shamanic Power and A Spirit Walker’s Guide to Shamanic Tools. Along with her writings, Evelyn is an impassioned shamanic teacher. She was featured on The Shift Network’s, 2016 Global Shamanism Summit, and is a presenter for the innovative, international program, A Year Of Ceremony.
Whether through face-to-face contact with individual patients, workshop groups and conference participants, or through the printed word–Evelyn uses her loving humor and passion to open people’s hearts and inspire them to live more joyful, fulfilling and purposeful lives. Her website is www.evelynrysdyk.com
1. Jordi Estévez, “Catastrophes or sudden changes. The need to review our time perspective in Prehistory” Vers une anthropologie des catastrophes Actes des 9e journées d’anthropologie de Valbonne Sous la direction de Luc Buchet, Catherine Rigeade, Isabelle Séguy et Michel Signoli – Éditions apdca, Antibes, 2008. 22.
2.Paul C. Bauschatz. The Well and the Tree, World and Time in Early Germanic Culture. (Amherst, MA; University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.) 14.
3. This translation of “Þær lög lögðu, þær líf kuru alda börnum, ørlög seggja” is far closer to the intent of the Old Norse as described by Bauschatz and by Ralph Metzner in his book, The Well of Remembrance.
4. I believe that this idea is reflected in the way runic messages were inscribed. They were sometimes written left to right, other times right to left and occasionally by having each line of writing alternate directions.