ÖRLÖG and SKÖP IN POETIC EDDA
Here is the order in which the poems are studied:
(in black: done, in red: still to do)
Lokasenna, Völuspá, Hávamál, Völundrarkviða, VafÞrúðnismál, Grímnismál, Grípisspá, Reginsmál (SigurÞarkviða Fafnisbana Önnur), Fáfnismál, Sigrdrífumál, Sigurðarkviða in skamma, Guðrúnarkviða in forna, Guðrúnarkviða in fyrsta, Oddrúnarkviða (Oddrúnargrátr), Atlakviða (Dauði Atla), Atlamál in grænlenzku, Grógaldr, Fjölsvinnsmál, Hrafnagaldr Óðins.
Poetic Edda is our main source of knowledge on örlög but it often uses two other words: sköp, relatively more frequent in the sagas, and rök. Less often, destiny is called urðr, which is also Norn Urðr’s name. We will meet several examples of it.
On sköp: The neutral substantive skap indicates the state or the mood of a person. But it is also associated to verb skapa which means ‘to shape’. This is why its plural, sköp took the meaning of ‘shapings’ i.e. of all what shaped our life, our fate. In the following, I will keep the Norse word örlög which is well-known or I will translate it if necessary into English by ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’. The word sköp, conversely, is quasi unknown and I will systematically translate it by “shapings” in order to distinguish it from destiny.
Our life takes its course during such shapings. They are carried out, with more or less softness, by our parents, our friends, our passions. When you mother softly explains that “you should not behave in this way…” she gently shapes you. When a wizard “casts a spell,” when someone is tortured, both wizard and torturer carry out brutish shapings. In the following, we will slowly access these principles of Heathen spirituality and will look further into the difference between örlög and sköp.
I have to add here a few words about the preterit of verb skapa, skóp (he shaped) that shows 8 times in the Poetic Edda. We will meet below four of them and the others instances are always found either describing a magical shaping or in the impressive context of the World creation. The only example which might refer to a material shaping is in Völuspá s 7, where the gods “tangir skópu (they shaped tongs),” though the materiality of such tongs could be disputed…
On rök: this word became famous because of ragna-rök, the gods’ rök that Snorri Sturluson (and more recently, Wagner) understand as being the word rökkr or rökr: darkness, twilight. Other sources (among Poetic Edda) led the experts to understanding rök (it is then a plural without singular) as being: causes, signs, alignments, explanations, the course of things, fate. The multiplicity of these meanings does not enable to learn a clear lesson on the nature destiny in the ancient Germanic world. We will quote only 3 rather characteristic examples, drawn from Lokasenna 25 where we see how Frigg understands this word, of Hávamál 145 and VafÞrúðnismál 42 where Óðinn uses it (see these stanzas below).
We still find two words that can translate as ‘fate’.
Mjötuðr is the “measure giver” (the ‘orchestra director’) that we meet three times in the Poetic Edda, always with the same meaning as urðr.
Auðna (luck) met in Atlamál in grænlenzku, s. 98. This word evokes ‘luck’ in the meaning of ‘stroke of luck’.
 (ørlƍg, plural of ørlag – lag is a layer), that is a structure defining a vertical ordering.
 rök is perhaps linked to singular rak : rakings, or to rák : a streak, i. e. a horizontal ordering. I do not believe useful to fantasize on this spatial difference but it is interesting to note that both define an ordered structure.
Ærr ertu, Loki,
er þú fær þér Gefjun at gremi,
því at aldar örlög
hygg ek, at hon öll of viti
jafngörla sem ek.
Mad are you, Loki
that you bring to you Gefjon in wrath
because humankind’s örlög,
think I, to her all of knowledge,
equally-clearly as I (do).
Aldar is the genitive of öld = a great duration of time, an age. In poetry this word takes the meaning of humankind/the people/all existing beings.
This stanza, with the 29th below, justifies the belief in the fact that Gefjon, Frigg and Óðinn know everyone’s örlög.
segja seggjum frá,
hvat it æsir tveir
drýgðuð í árdaga;
firrisk æ forn rök firar.
Of örlög to you both
You should never
tell humankind among,
what you , Æsir twofold,
you committed at times ancient;
Let (them) avoid for ever old deeds, human ones.
The reflexive form of verb firra, firra-sk, means ‘to avoid/flee, here in the subjunctive: firrisk.
Loki has criticized just before, in s. 24, some of Óðinn’s behavior and Frigg recommends to Loki to avoid speaking either of Óðinn’s örlög or of his own. This the first time he get the advice to forget the things of the past. Boyer skillfully translates: “What belongs to the past has to remain in the past” but this translation does not renders the idea that the gods seek to hide truth from human people.
Frigg textually states here these old stories could better stay unspoken. The need to hide “what everyone knows but that nobody says” is clearly rejected by Loki who goes on disclosing without restraint the gods’ past. Besides, Loki’s answer to Frigg comes at once: in stanza 28 he will declare: “I am the reason for which you cannot anymore see Baldr riding in the halls.” This is a claim that he has been twice accountable of Baldr’s death: once by pushing Höðr to kill him, twice by refusing to shed tears at his disappearance.
Ærr ertu, Loki,
er þú yðra telr
hygg ek at öll viti,
þótt hon sjálfgi segi.
Freyja says :
Mas are you u, Loki
that you to both say
think I in all is known
though she not-herself speaks (of it).
As in stanza 25, line 2 alludes here to the dialogue of two persons by using the case dative of ‘thou’ in the plural = ‘with you’.
Loki has insulted Frigg in s. 28 and Freyja recalls him again, Frigg did in s. 25 that some things must remain unknown. It is obvious that Loki is the one who insist in revealing unpleasant truths to the gods and he obstinately refuses to be keep silent.
Lines 3 uses the form leiðr-stafr = hateful-stafr. The word stafr means a staff and it is also used to designate a staff carrying carved runes, i.e. a runic inscription. Since Nornes carve the örlög in runes, it is not surprising to understand this word as runes, and to speak of “hateful runes”. In opposition, I voluntarily translated stafr by ‘things’ to stress that this translation is obviously possible. Boyer adopts a median position by translating by “hateful charms” whereas Dronke translates it by “hatefulnesses” and Orchard by “horrible deeds”. This illustrates the tendency of the American school to systematically refuse to evoke magic in their interpretations, whenever this does not produce nonsense.
It should also be noted that Freyja words “hon sjálfgi segi (she herself do not speak” could be interpreted as Frigg being unable to speak about örlög. The last lines of s. 25 indicates that she avoids speaking of it because it is better for human kind to “firrisk æ (avoid always)” this knowledge, when related to either the past or the future.
A (slight) digression in parallel to örlög:
the gods wish to hide the ‘past’ örlög to humankind.
The stanzas we have just studied obviously shows that the gods do not wish to inform humankind of its örlög and we come back to this in conclusion. Giving a piece of his mind to the gods seems to me such a recurrent in Loki’s behavior that it should be also underlined.
Veiztu, ef ek inni ættak
Ægis höllum i
Baldri líkan bur,
út þú né kvæmir
frá ása sonum,
ok væri þá at þér vreiðum vegit.
Frigg says :
Know-you, if here I had
Ægir’s hall into
Baldr similar son,
outside you could not come
from the Æsir sons
and he would to you angrily carried/have fought/have killed.
The verb kóma, to come, does kvæmi in the imperfect of the subjunctive.
The form of language used by Frigg looks complicated because it uses ‘to come outside’ for ‘getting out’ and subjunctive imperfect, a much used verbal tense in Norse. She simply says: “You could not have left.”
Vegit: neutral past participle of vega = carry/fight/slaughter. It seems that the three meanings cohabit in Frigg’s mouth because she unhappy/aggressive/murderous in front of Loki’s arrogance. In the following stanza, he will take pleasure in stating that he is the very one who caused that “she does not see any more Baldr riding in the halls,” i.e. he has been twice responsible for its death: by pushing Höðr to kill him and by refusing to cry at his disappearance.
Considering the ambiguity of vega, we does not know exactly what Frigg wishes, that the Æsir’s sons anger falls on Loki, or that they fight him, or that they slaughter him. The death threat uttered by Frigg is also ambiguous and it is related to Baldr’s murder. The primary cause for setting Loki in a state of everlasting torture is Baldr’s killing. His outspokenness might become unbearable but the Æsir them would not have gone until his de facto elimination (even if he does not die ‘totally’) without Baldr’s murder.
From all this arguing, comes out the idea that there is an ‘örlög of the past’, which is not included in our word ‘destiny’, is obvious for the gods. When Gefjon, Óðinn and Frigg are said to know all the örlög, this implies that they know the past as well as the future. In other words, Germanic destiny or shapings, is not associated to time passing and the future, it looks as a temporal block belonging to present time endlessly attached to what it shapes and within all segments of time. This strengthens my refusal to see each of the three Norns representing one of these segments of time we call past, present and future (see the comment of Völuspá stanza 20 HERE )
In fact, as stanza 20 also says, the Norns write the örlög and “writings remain” i.e. what has been written will exist independently of time. On the contrary, “words fly away.” This adds up to the arguments given in stanza 20: the last line cannot carry “at segja” which means that they speak the örlög: a örlög stated only will be gone with the first blow of time.
The comments given here refer to Völundarkviða various episodes.
If you do not remember the details on this poem; I recommend to read the illustrated tale the text of which I wrote:
Meyjar flugu sunnan,
myrkvið í gögnum,
The maidens fled (from) South,
full of wisdom (was) a young one,
örlög to endure/carry out/commit;
Adverb í followed by a dative = ‘to be inside’ or ‘going through’.
C.V. gives “to commit, perpetrate, especially in a pejorative direction, for example, drýgja hórdóm = ‘commit’ prostitution. The translators have, in the case of örlög drýgja, selected: “to try one’s luck.” deVries does not give this meaning but the ones of ‘to carry out/endure’ which are thus closer to the etymological meaning of this verb. Lex.Poet. gives the basic meaning of facere = to achieve, and adds a great number of examples showing that, as in English, it can take several possible meaning, going from ‘to indulge’ or ‘to endure’ until ‘to perpetrate’'. It thus seems that C.V.’s “especially pejorative” meaning is not as obvious as it states, especially in poetry.
sjö vetr at þat
en inn átta
en inn níunda
nauðr um skilði;
á myrkvan við,
Seven winters at that (they remained)
but the eighth one
in all they longed
but the ninth
need split (them);
the maidens wished (to go)
full of wisdom (was) a young one,
örlög to endure/carry out/commit.
Adverbe á followed by an accusative means ‘towards’.
Verb skulu (shall) does skyldi in the preterit. It is more probable, however, that skilði is the normal preterit of verb skilja (divide, split/discern/understand).
The words nauð and nauðr mean ‘need’. This is the name of rune Naudiz (Nauð in Norse). In our description of each Norne charge (see stanza 20 of Völuspà), it would be thus Norn Skuld who is implied in the maidens’ departure. I understand that a person indifferent to runes will find this remark stretchy. On another hand, I cannot imagine how an old Scandinavian knowledgeable in rune magic could be unaware of this hint.
In the last line, we find back verb drýgja. There is no need to make its meaning more precise here.
From the point of view of örlög, the behavior of the girls confirm the idea already presented that the örlög is binding on you like a need. It is besides necessary to assume it without cowering. It should be noticed that these ‘maidens’ are divine beings “coming from the south” and they are certainly subjected to örlög although divine, as shown in Lokasenna above.
Moreover, the singular “alvitr unga,” in the next to last line of the two quoted stanzas, can imply a, ‘each’ i.e. “each is very wise and young.” To say that they are wise is to say that they are knowledgeable, particularly in magic. We can then understand why they can be informed of their örlög and thus be able to know if they are or not assuming it.
The use of the verb drýgja to speak about the completion of their destiny deserves a few precise comments. First of all, we point out that drýgja has already been used by Frigg who, in Lokasenna s. 25, speaks in Loki about "hvat it to æsir to tveir drýgðuð í árdaga; (what you, the double of the Æsir, committed in the olden days)” as being part of Loki’s örlög.
Before pondering whether these madens are or nor ‘Lokian’, we will examine the uses of the verb drýgja in the Poetic Edda.
Atlamál in grænlenzku
s. 45 "hvat úti drýgðu, which has ‘happened’ outside" and what happened is the massacre of a guest, therefore to translate here drýgðu by ‘committed’ is completely valid.
s.86 Guðrún announces to Atli that she has just killed their children.
It announces his intention to him to kill her in return and he adds: “drýgt þú fyrr hafðir… (committed you before have…)".
Völuspá S. 35
Askr Yggdrasils drýgir erfiði… The ash Yggdrasill endures a suffering…
Hárbarðsljóð S. 48
Hárbarðr told Þórr that his wife maintains a lover at home and that when it returns "þann muntu þrek drýgja, (then you must courage ‘exert ‘)" In this context, ‘to exert courage’ implies either suffering or violence.
We see that the meaning of drýgja in Edda is that to carry out an action either with violence (‘commit’) or with suffering (‘endure’). Völundrarkviða thus teaches us that örlög cannot be carried out quietly. Either one carries out it in violence or one receives it in the suffering.
The maidens ‘drýgjendi’ (committing, etc.) their örlög follow this rule.
They do not seem to suffer themselves from the situation but to bring suffering: By leaving their lovers, they leave Völundr’s two brothers in a desperate state (they attempt to follow them and disappear). they leave Völundr himself open to the terrible fate awaiting him.
In these two stanzas we meet a quite special description of örlög. It is not surprising that, according to the circumstances, the poets may insist on a specific feature of örlög. We should not see in this fact a “web of contradictions” but rather a fruitful concept that adapts to many circumstances.
Grípisspá (or Sinfiötlalok)
The poem Völu-spá (‘Völva’s-prophecy’) states to us clearly that a völva is able to prophesy (spá). One can also name a völva as being a spákona (prophecy-woman) or spá-mær (prophecy-maiden). These last forms are the ones used for the men and Grípir is a spámaðr (prophecy-man), the male equivalent of a völva, and the name of the poem means ‘Grípir’s prophecy’. The poem prose introduction tells that “hann… var allra manna vitrastr ok framvíss. (He was… of all men the wisest and the most certain (or wisest) about the future).
Sigurðr requires of him to state his future. Grípir speaks of a girl, beautiful of look and raised by a king named Heimir. Sigurðr answers as follows:
« Hvat er mik at því,
þótt mær séi
fœdd at Heimis?
Þat skaltu Grípir
því at þú öll of sér
“What is it to me,
though the maiden might be
fair of look
nurtured by Heimir?
That you must Grípir
clearly and enough tell
since for you all foresee
örlög before (you).”
Grípir tries very hard not to pronounce this örlög. Sigurðr urges him to reveal his full future. Grípir cautiously begins tell him starts to announce his meeting with Brynhildr (Brünhilde), that they will madly love each other but (s. 31) “It munuð alla / eiða vinna / fullfastliga, /fá munuð halda (You will all / the oaths work out / fully-strong / few will you hold.” Of course Sigurðr is indignant at its own inconstancy, and Grípir must then explain to him these causes and he is trapped into the necessity to left nothing hidden.
In Lokasenna, we met an örlög telling the past; in Völundrarkviða, a timeless örlög appears when it must. Here, at the beginning of the poem (s. 6-9) we have a rather past-örlög. Then Grípir states the victories to come (9-19) and refuses to continue. In front of Sigurðr’s insistence, he ends up revealing all his “örlög fyrir (örlög future)” (s. 27- 53).
We again meet a character who knows all about örlög. Just like Frigg, he very reluctant to share his knowledge.
In the last stanza, we understands that Grípir is a quite wary to have stated his truths to a fighter as dangerous as Sigurðr. Grípir knows well that he has just put his head at risk since Sigurðr is famous for his quick angering. Not without some elegance, he quiets down Grípir in the two first lines of this stanza. He says:
mun-at sköpum vinna…»
« Let us quit each other in happiness,
we cannot on the shapings win… »
This soothing conclusion is remarkable because, Sigurð himself seems to accept his shapings. In studying the following poem, we will see that, twice, Sigurðr’s shapings will get some swerving in front of his ability to act.
or SigurÞarkviða Fafnisbana Önnur
Recall that the English word ‘destiny’ is used here to translate the Norse ‘örlög’ and the plural ‘shapings’ is used for Norse ‘sköp’.
This poem begins with the well-known myth of Loki killing an otter ‘who’ unfortunately happens to be the son Otr (Otter) of Hreiðmarr (Steed of the heather) to whom he will have wergild to pay. After the killing, three Æsir, Óðinn, Hœnir and Loki, make a bag of the otter skin but, ignorant as they are of the exact nature of this otter, show it to Hreiðmarr, who recognizes his son’s skin and requires a compensation in order to avoid the duty of avenging his son. This compensation is huge (according to the usual standards): it consists in filling the bag with gold, to put it upright on its ‘legs’ filled with gold, then to cover the whole with a gold heap. Loki is in charge to gather enough gold; an important detail is that the treasure includes a ring that caught Loki’s eye.
For this, he contacts the dwarf Andvari (see the details in the ‘tale’ ThreeCursesNibelung) who lives in water in the form of a pike. This last proclaims:
“Andvari heiti ek,
Óinn hét minn faðir,
margan hef ek fors of farit,
skóp oss í árdaga,
at skylda ek í vatni vaða”
Andvari I am called,
Óinn was my father called,
by many torrents I travelled,
a wretched Norn
shaped for us in the old days
thus it occurs that in water I vade.
The form skóp employed here is the preterit of verb skapa, to work. In this case, allusion to a fate thrown by a ‘wretched’ Norne (aumligr is a kind of insult!) is obvious is thus the sköp, the shapings of Andvari made that it became a pike.
When Loki obtained the gold of Andvari, the Æsir then perform what is required. When this is done, Hreiðmarr notices an otter hair sticking out of the heap and forces Óðinn to hide it with the valuable ring Loki liked. Loki felt he already did much to obtain all this gold and he is furious at Hreiðmarr’s meanness. Loki thus will utter a curse relating to Hreiðmarr’s shapings (sköp). The following will tell us that this curse will be effective: another of Hreiðmarr’s sons, Fáfnir, will kill him and grab the treasure… and we will see later what happens then.
This curse is uttered in stanza 6:
Gull er þér nú reitt
en þú gjöld of hefr
mikil míns höfuðs,
verðr-a sæla sköpuð;
þat verðr ykkarr beggja bani.
Gold is yours now wrathful [the wrathful gold]
But you compensations increase
much of my head
[you increase much the compensations for my head],
for son yours
not becomes happy the shaped [the shapings] ;
that becomes of you two both the death.
A curse is intended to modify the shapings of the cursed one. Loki does not seek to modify Hreiðmarr’s örlög but addresses the beings who shape the sköp. In addition, we also notice that Loki does not give any detail how Hreiðmarr and his son will die. On the other hand, Loki makes a point of specifying the reason for which Hreiðmarr’s shapings can be modified: he failed to be generous while obtaining a generous compensation.
Hreiðmarr has two more sons: Reginn (a name that I do not associate to ‘regin’, the gods, but to regi, cowardice - the Coward - and this name suits him well) and Fáfnir (meaning dubious, perhaps resulting from fá-fengr = catch-spoils?). Reginn and Fáfnir request of their father their share of the spoils because they took part in the violence made to the Æsir. In front of their father’s refusal, “Fáfnir lagði sverði Hreiðmar föður sinn sofanda (Fáfnir laid a sword (in) Hreiðmarr, father his, sleeping)” and seizes the spoils. Reginn would like to have also his share and requests it from Fáfnir who refuses. Reginn then asks his sister’s advice and she recommends him to ask again blithely: “Bróður kveðja / skaltu blíðliga… (Your brother, you shall blithely ask…).” His sister thinks him a coward and, as a consequence, Reginn gets nothing. We know also that Fáfnir will disappear with the loot and change himself into a ‘worm’ (what we call now a dragon) and deal with him in the next poem studied, Fáfnismál.
Reginn has not the nerve to face his dragon become brother and he takes the decision to raise a future hero who will do the job in his place: Sigurðr, of whom he becomes the adoptive father.
He declares in s. 14:
Ek mun fœða
nú er Yngva konr
með oss kominn;
sjá mun ræsir
ríkstr und sólu;
þrymr um öll lönd
I will raise
the people-proud furious one;
now is Yngvi’s kinsman
with us come;
he will (be) a leader
most powerful under the sun;
glorious in all lands
with (his) örlög-rope [the binding örlög].
According to its etymology (given by Vries), the masculine noun sími, rope, string, primarily indicates something which binds, which constrains. Although a cord is braided rather than spun here is the lone allusion which I found that might indicate that destiny could be related to another activity than magic, such as weaving, braiding etc. In fact, we clearly see that the braiding of the rope is not significant: of importance is the fact that it binds Sigurðr to his bright destiny.
Notice that Loki wants to modify Hreiðmarr’s shapings (sköp) whereas he cannot change Sigurðr’s destiny (örlög) that binds him. In Fáfnismál, we will see how Sigurðr will succeed in shaping himself his shapings (implicitly once and also explicitly once). At the end of this poem, he will even be advised to avoid the next possible change. Nevertheless, in Sigrdrífumál first stanza, we will see that his örlög will wash him along until his death, without him being conscious of it.
Reginn thus wishes to take along Sigurðr towards Fáfnir’s cave in order to recover the treasure. Sigurðr, however, haughtily refuses: It would be ridiculous if the prince has more “desire to seek the red rings (of red gold) / than revenge for (his) father (’s death)!” Hence, they now travel to the place where lives the killer of Sigurðr’s father, Sigmundr.
On their way, they meet an old magician, Hnikarr, who will provide Sigurðr with information about his warrior future, a bit as Grípir did it already. This knowledge will be useful for him in the necessary combat to become a spotless warrior, that is, avenging his father’s death. Sigurðr requires of Hnikarr the signs, the omens by which a warrior can foresee the issue of a combat.
He begins his request as follows:
Segðu mér Hnikarr,
alls þá hvártveggja veizt
goða heill ok guma:…
Tell me Hnikarr,
all, for both of them, you know
the omens for the gods and humankind…
The noun heill has several meanings. When its gender is neuter (as it is here) it means ‘forecast, prediction’.
Sigurðr undoubtedly follows this advice because he fights against his father’s killers and overcomes them. To the one who is the actual killer, he applies the ancient punishment, the one which must be applied to find back honor, i.e. death by the “bloody eagle”. This revenge is requested from a son for his father’s killer and cannot be inflicted in any other circumstance.
Sigurðr states :
Nú er blóðugr örn
á baki ristinn…
Now is the bloody eagle
With a biting sword
for the death of Sigmundr
on the back carved…
The poem does not stress this point, but it is clear that setting up such a death ritual is of extreme importance on the way a hero shapes his life, his sköp. Here, this importance is not explicitly stated because, to some extent, Reginn has already been shaping a sköp such that Sigurðr’s main role is killing Fáfnir so that he, Reginn, can finally recover the treasure. To some extent, Sigurðr rebels against the sköp Reginn has worked out for him and he shapes for himself another sköp. This ‘self-shaping’ behavior will be much more explicitly described in the following poem.
Reginn thus takes along Sigurðr towards Fáfnir’s cave with the aim to have him killing Fáfnir and to recover this obsessing treasure.
Sigurðr and Reginn leave to find Fáfnir and spot the path he follows between his cave and the river where he waters himself. Reginn disappears hiding in a close moor while Sigurðr digs a pit that crosses Fáfnir’s path. When Fáfnir appears, spitting his poison, Sigurðr is hardly touched by it. As Fáfnir passes above him, he pierces Fáfnir’s heart with his sword. Fáfnir does not die at once, and they exchange some words with each other. Fáfnir says to him: “it gjalla gull / ok it glóðrauða fé (this howling gold and this wealth red as embers)” will bring death to you”.
þú munt fyr nesjum hafa
ok örlög ósvinns apa
alt er feigs forað.
you will in front of the nesses have
and an örlög of an unwise monkey
all is danger to the sentenced ones.
The doom of the Norns,
you will meet while sailing
and an idiotic monkey’s örlög
all is danger to a sentenced one.
In this stanza, Fáfnir attempts cursing Sigurðr but you know that he will not drown “in front of a ness” and will not become either an “idiotic monkey.” Here, the curse is ineffective because it is not grounded in some real knowledge that Fáfnir would have about Sigurðr. At least, we confirm that Norns can render catastrophic a life and that there are catastrophic örlög. The following stanza shows that Fáfnir holds a great deal of knowledge and that Sigurðr knows it.
Sigurðr, as he did with Grípir, seeks to receive a teaching. Here is their exchange and it is deeply instructive for us.
Segðu mér Fáfnir... ok kjósa
sumar dœtr Dvalins.
Tell me Fáfnir…
which are these Norns,
who go to those in need
[or who are need-walkers]
mothers from(their) sons.
I say Norns are,
have-not they family the same,
some are of the Æsir family
some of the elves,
some Dvalinn’s daughters.
Tell me Fáfnir…
which are these ‘Norns’,
who go to those of need
(or who wander on the ways of need)
and split (sometimes by sorcery)
mothers from their sons.
They are born from various origins, the ‘Norns ', I say,
and not from one family,
some are of the Æsir family
some of the elves,
some are Dvalinn’s daughter
(father of the dwarves).
At first, let us note that the text does not make a difference between ‘the human ones who wanders in need’ and the possibility that Norns ‘wander in need(-territory)’, i.e. they ‘live in the country of need’. This last meaning appears most probable to me because it does not assign Norns to the role of handling humankind’s needs. Similarly, they do not help the women in their ‘need’ to give birth. They merely part two destinies that have been confused up until then.
Other poems teach us that the divinities who govern childbirth are called Dísir, (in the singular, one Dís) instead of being called Norns. In this stanza, it is obvious that Fáfnir and Sigurðr believe that Nornir and Dísir are identical. This error is not surprising on behalf of a young man as Sigurðr and it is extremely probable that a dying Fáfnir was not going to correct the vocabulary of his young killer. Indeed, we knows by Völuspá (s. 8) that the gods were disturbed by the arrival of three “þursa meyiar… ór iötunheimom (thurse maidens … out of giant country).” It is true that we wait for stanza 20 to know that these three maids are the Norns. Anyhow, if Völuspá shows some coherence, these three girls can only be the Norns.
Lastly, Fáfnir informs us about the origins of the Dísir that seem to be quite varied. As long as the Dísir are closer to individual fates than of the one of the Universe, it is not surprising that each divine race provides ‘shaping leaders’ for the human race. Notice that the giants are not quoted here, which is normal since the Norns already came from their kind.
In the following stanza (s. 14) Sigurðr uses a striking metaphor to speak of Ragnarök. He indicates it by the fact that “er blanda hjörlegi/Surtr ok to Æsir saman (they merge the sword-lake [legi is the dative of lögr, a lake and the rune Laukaz. Sword-lake is blood.] / Surtr and the Æsir them together).” In Ragnarök the giants (personified here by Surtr, the fire giant) and the Æsir will destroy saman (each other) and thus will merge the blood of their corpses. He uses this metaphor to ask Fáfnir where Ragnarök will take place and Fáfnir answers: “Óskópnir hann heitir (it is called ‘Unshaped one’)” and this may imply that the place where Ragnarök will take place is not yet ‘worked out’. I send you back to Hrafnagaldr, stanzas 2 to 5 for a possible description of the magic charms that will shape this place so that Ragnarök might occur.
Finally, Fáfnir announces to Sigurðr that Reginn will betray and kill him, just as he has been betrayed. (s. 22): “Reginn mik réð, / han þik ráða mun…(Reginn me advised and betrayed, and you betray and advise will…).” When Fáfnir is dead, Reginn reappears and recalls that Sigurðr has recently killed his brother “though he is partially guilty himself.” Sigurðr replies in two points. First, he recalls that he would never have attempted to kill Fáfnir if Reginn had not pushed him over the edge by questioning his courage. Second, he also recalls that Reginn (the Coward according to my interpretation of his name) behaved like a coward: While he, Sigurðr, fought with the dragon, he, Reginn hid somewhere in a close moor (s. 28) “afli mínu / atta ek við orms megin, / meðan þú í lyngvi látt (strength mine / I [had to exert] against the dragon’s power / while you in a moor were lying).”
Then, Reginn goes to Fáfnir’s corpse of, extracts his heart and drinks the blood running from this wound. He feels tired after having drunk all this blood and he asks Sigurðr to cook Fáfnir’s heart while he sleeps to recover. While cooking the heart, Sigurðr checks if the heart is well-cooked, burns his hand and put a finger in his mouth. Then, at once
en er hjartablóð Fáfnis kom á tungu hánum, ok skilði hann fugls rödd. Hann heyrði, at igður klökuðu á hrísinu.
but the blood of the heart of Fáfnir came on tongue his [Sigurðr’s], and could him of the bird [understand ] the language. He heard the nuthatches that whispered on the bushes.
[A nuthatch is a small bird, approximately titmouse sized, that feeds on worms it finds in the bark of trees. Though much smaller, its beak shape is similar to a woodpecker’s and it is very discrete, as opposed to more familiar birds such as a titmouse. I see in them what we now call the “spirits of the forest,” or, in the present context, the dísir. Their language is certainly as full of ‘magic’ as the celebrated ‘bird language’. ]
The first said:
Þar liggr Reginn,
ræðr um við sik,
vill tæla mög
þann er trúir hánum, ...
vill bölvasmiðr (bölva-smiðr)
Here is lying Reginn planning for himself,
he will betray the boy who relies on him…
will want the evil-doer the brother to avenge.
Here is Reginn lying
calculating for his own interest,
he will betray the boy
who has confidence in him,…
this evil-doer will
want to avenge his brother.
Sigurðr has already been informed of the danger he is facing by Fáfnir, then by Reginn himself, and this is now confirmed by the forest spirits, all say to him to be wary of Reginn. But he also knows that Reginn is a powerful wizard and that he had to shape Sigurðr’s fates so that they irrevocably lead to his death (Sigurðr’s). We can express this, in this case, by saying that Reginn had cast a spell on Sigurðr so that his fate becomes dying after Fáfnir’s killing. He wards of this spell by stating, or by understanding that he has a way out if he kills Reginn.
"Verða-t svá rík sköp,
fara til heljar heðan."
Will become-not so powerful the shapings
that Reginn must
my ‘of death-word’ [my death sentence] carry; because them two brothers
soon will travel
towards Hel from here.
The shapings (‘sköp’) will not be so powerful
that Reginn must
carry my death sentence;
because, soon, the two brothers
will leave this place
to travel towards Hel.
He thus cuts Regin’s head and, as the text insists upon, he eats Fáfnir’s heart and drinks the blood of the two corpses, the one of Reginn and the one of Fáfnir. Here a literal translation of this episode:
Sigurðr hjó höfuð af Regin, ok þá át han Fáfnis hjarta ok drakk blóð will þeira beggja, Regins ok Fáfnis. Þá heyrði Sigurðr, hvar igður mæltu:
Sigurðr cut the head of Reginn, and then ate him of Fáfnir the heart and drunk the blood of all two, Reginn and Fáfnir. Then heard Sigurðr, what the nuthatches said:
Bitt þú Sigurðr
ef þú geta mættir.
the red rings,
to fear much;
a maid know I single
of gold equipped,
if you obtain meet.
Pack up, Sigurðr,
the treasure of red gold rings
it is not worthy of a king
to fear and hesitate so much;
I know an exceptional maid,
she is full of beauty
and with gold outfitted,
if you are able to obtain her.
After all these events, it is quite possible that Sigurðr was a little hesitant on choosing a best behavior. The ‘spirit-nuthatches’ call him to order and say that he now has to go to Sigrdrífa, the woman whom he must now meet. Grípir already announced his future and already announced to him the need for this meeting.
In the following stanza, the nuthatches warn him on the fact that awaking her is not an excellent idea.
Knáttu mögr séa
fyr sköpum norna.
You know how, boy, to see
the girl under the helmet
when towards the combat
on Vingskornir rode;
you are able-not Sigrdrífa
of her sleep to split,
child of Skjöldungr,
against the Norns’ shapings.
You, lad, will be able to see
the girl under the helmet
when she rode to combat
on Vingskornir (her horse);
Child of Skjöldungr, (son of a great family)
you are not able to stop
against the Norns’ shapings.
Sigrdrífa is a Valkyrie who disobeyed Óðinn’s orders by not choosing the warrior he wanted to die in combat. To punish her, he pricks her with “the thorn of sleep.” Óðinn, in this case, is who decided of Sigrdrífa’ shapings. In this very case again, we could also say that he “casted a spell on her,” that is he “shaped a spell on her”.
The nuthatches say very clearly that Sigurðr will be unable to awake her. When we will see how he awakes her, we will understand that either the ‘spirits’ were misled, or they wanted to imply that awaking her was very dangerous because he would then to find himself overlapping with the Norns’s intentions, i.e. he would get into enter the destiny Grípir had foreseen. This last assumption seems to me most probable.
The following poem is called Sigrdrífu - mál, ‘of Sigrdrífa - the word’, because when she meets Sigurðr she is still a Valkyrie (she will be called Brynhildr later, her best known name).
The poem begins with a comment:
Sigurðr gekk í skjaldborgina ok sá , at þar lá maðr ok svaf með öllum hervápnum. Hann tók fyrst hjálminn af höfði hánum. Þá sá hann, at þat var kona. Brynjan var föst sem hon væri holdgróin. Þá reist hann með Gram frá höfuðsmátt brynjuna í gögnum niðr ok svá út í gögnum báðar ermar. Þá tók hann brynju af henni, en hon vaknaði, ok settist hon upp ok sá Sigurðr ok mælti…
Sigurðr entered the stronghold-shield [I suppose this is name for a stronghold built in a particular way] and he saw, there was human and ‘quieted’ fully armed. He removed first the helmet of the head. Then, he saw that she was a woman. The coat of arms was tight as if it had grown in the flesh. Then he gashed the coat of arms with Gram from the neck to down and the two arms. Then he took the coat of mail out of her and she woke up, and sat down and saw Sigurðr and said:
Sigrdrífa sleeps in a very particular place, which is a fort bearing the name of a well-known war tactic. Let us note that, when he arrives, Sigurðr sees a fully-armed warrior so that he calls him/her a human person (maðr). As foresaw the spirits-nuthatches, he “can see the girl under her helmet.” It is the first action he does when meeting her.
Up to that point, he followed the nuthatches advice and he was able to shape the fates in order to keep some control on his destiny. Does he know he will awake her by slicing her coat of arms? At any rate, this coat of arms seems to be grown in the flesh and he can suspect that it will awake the sleeping beauty. Thus, voluntarily or by negligence, and in spite of the nuthatches advice, he will slice this coat and he will awake Sigrdrífa, and with her, their örlög.
Hvat beit brynju?
Hví brá ek svefni?
Hverr felldi af mér
What bit the coat of mail?
Why I stopped my sleep?
Who fell from me
the pale needs?
What sliced the coat of mail?
Why I stopped my sleep?
Who made fall
the pale needs that bound me?
In this context, the “pale needs" evoke the paleness of a corpse-like Sigrdrífa in her bewitched sleep due to Óðinn’s shapings.
Thus, Sigurðr awoke Sigrdrífa and their destinies will go as far as becoming the Germanic representatives of the pressure destiny can put upon us.
They will passionately love each other and as Grípir said: (s. 29), “gár-a þú manna / nema þú mey séir [you will not give any more attention to humankind / nothing except the maid you will see]” but (s. 31) “It munuð alla /eiða vinna / fullfastliga, / fá munuð halda [ (You two together will want all / oaths work out / fully-firm ones / few will you be able to keep]”.
But this is another history, the one of a fully adult Sigurðr, and it has already been told thousand times.
Sigurdharkviða in skamma
SigurÞarkviða Fafnisbana Þriðja
This Sigurðr’s ‘short’ Ballad is nevertheless 71 stanzas long. It describes how Sigrdrífa, now called Brynhildr, will push her husband (Gunnar) to murder Sigurðr, she will describe her own suicide and how, during her death throes, she predicts Gunnar’s and Sigurðr’s widow, Guðrún, future.
Stanza 5 provides the image of a flawless Brynhildr who looks naive: She claims that fate is responsible for the death her beloved Sigurðr.
Hon sér at lífi
She led her life
Löstr means flaw, ‘improper behavior’ though it does not refer to the idea of ‘sin’.
This means that “stern fates” will explain why, in stanza 6, Brynhildr’s soul and body exacerbate and she declares: “Hafa skal ek Sigurð, - eða þó svelta, - (Have Sigurðr shall I – else shal I die/kill)”: verb svelta means both to die and to kill and she indeed will start the process by which they will both die.
She is at once sorry for these words… and however go on yielding to her fate, but she specifically some sköp, shapings, to have been the cause of her misfortunes, as stanza 7 shows.
Orð mæltak nú,
iðrumk eptir þess:
kván er hans Guðrún,
en ek Gunnars;
skópu oss langa þrá.
A word I uttered now,
I will be sorry later of it :
his wife is Guðrún,
and I Gunnar’s;
shaped us a long yearning.
The Norns, as divinities, are supposed to decide of our fate as a whole they do not cast spells that will shape these ‘details’ that are so important for us. It is thus possible to see the word nornir like a ‘heiti’ for women, and som “dreadful women” who would then have shaped these misfortunes into Brynhildr fate. In order to recognize the identity of these women, we have to open a short intermezzo in order to compare some facts in Völsunga saga, and others in the poetic Edda, in particular Guðrúnarkviða in forna stanzas 21-26.
Magic potion used in Völsunga saga and Guðrúnarkviða in forna
Völsunga saga version
As we saw in the preceding poems,Völsunga saga tells us how Sigurðr made Brynhildr (ex-Sígrdrifa) free of Óðinn’s shapings (sköp). Sigurðr expresses his wish to have Brynhildr as a wife and she concurs: “þess sver ek við guðin, at ek skal þik eiga eða enga konu ella (I swear in front of the gods, that I will to ‘own’ (mary) you and no other woman)” Sigurðr says, and the saga adds “Hún mælti slíkt. (She spoke in the same way)”.
From our point of view, the one of understanding how ancient Scandinavians would comprehend fate, three women will decide Sigurðr’ fate: obviously Brynhildr, and also Grímhildr and Guðrún. Grímhildr is the wife of the king with whom Sigurðr lives, she is Guðrún’s mother that the saga describes as a “fjölkunnga (vell-knowing one, witch)” and a “grimmhuguð kona (woman hate/brutality spirited)”.
When this handsome warrior rich of the treasure recovered from Fáfnir shows up, she decides that he will marry her Guðrún. She is perfectly conscious of the bonds linking Brynhildr and Sigurðr and gives him a potion for memory loss. The saga simply states that she served a potion, and provides no detail on its content.
Guðrúnarkviða in forna version.
None the poems that deal with this topic explain in detail why Sigurðr forgets his oaths to Brynhildr. Hereis the most complete explanation I could find, in Grípisspá, s. 33: “Þú verðr, siklingr, / fyr svikum annars, / muntu Grímhildar / gjalda ráða… (You will become, young prince, / by other betrayals (or poisons), / you will of Grímhildr / endure the advice).” This provides a bond between Völsunga saga poisoned drink and this stanza 33, except if the translator forgets the meaning ‘poison’, such as Boyer: “treasons” only, or Orchard: “plots.” However svik does hold both meanings of treason and poison, i.e. one should translate it here by something as “treacherous poisons.”
We will see in Guðrúnarkviða in forna below that Grímhildr again uses a potion for memory loss but she does it now for Guðrún, in order to make her forget her grief sorrow at after Sigurðr’s death. In this case, the magic process is very much detailed.
All things considered, the conjunction of Völsunga saga and poetic Edda shows us that Grímhildr used twice the magic of a memory loss potion. By these charms, it is able to shape the fate of her close relations, and this exactly what I read in Sigurðarkviða in skamma stanzas 5 and 7.
End of the interlude
Skaldic poetry abounds in heiti, this way of speech using a word in place of another one, such as speaking a woman and using for the word ‘norn’ in order to boost one of her features. This is why I think that Brynhildr alludes here Grímhildr’s shapings, she is one of the ‘norns’ referred at.
We now will study stanza 58 that confirms all these assumptions. During her death throes, she utters several prophecies related to Gunnar, but especially, it interprets in an interesting way the failure of their relationship in the two last lines of the stanza:
en þik Atli
mun eigi láta;
it munuð lúta
á laun saman,
hon mun þér unna,
sem ek skyldak,
ef okkr góð of sköp
she will to you give love
as I should have
if to us good (magic) shapings
would have been brought.
The verb göra, to make, gives gerði in the preterit.
The verb verða, to become, is the verb that has its plural preterit in urðu, the one associated Norn Urðr.
The last two lines indicate that Brynhildr does not allot the failure of her relationship with Gunnar to ‘fate’, i.e. an immutable örlög, but by the fact that ‘bad spells’ had been cast on them. The interlude above explains where these bad spells come from.
Her life now comes to its end:
Mart sagða ek,
munda ek fleira,
er mér meir mjötuðr
satt eitt sagðak,
svá mun ek láta.
Much could I say,
would I have more, (I could have said much more)
if my mjötuðr (‘measure-supplier’)
word-place (enough speaking time for other words) gave me;
the voice dies out,
under (the effect of) swelling),
truth one (the truth) I declared (about me - I truly described myself) thus I will let go.
The word mjötuðr is related to mjöt, a measurement, so that mjötuðr is who ‘gives the measure’ of things, just as our orchestra leaders. According to the context, it will mean either (optimistic view) a god, a guard, or (pessimistic view) a plague. Here, it can be fate, in the sense of ‘who measures our lives. In general, this word is used to speak of an organizer, fate, god or luck etc. It can well be here fate, as the one who attributes our lives’ measure. We shall see in Oddrúnargrátr s.13 that the poet uses the surprising way of speech : “the highest maid measure (reference) in the world” and again refers to mjötuðr.
All considered, the vocabulary used by Brynhildr suggests that she does not consider her separation from Sigurðr has been part of the immutable örlög carved by the Norns. She considers that she underwent two different kinds of sköp. The first ones are those inflicted by Óðinn for her disobedience, but she does not complain much of these that led her to meet Sigurðr. Inversely, as we have just seen, she bitterly complains of the sköp shaped by Grímhildr because they shaped her örlög to include the separation from Sigurðr. She was herself a powerful magician, and by teaching the runes to him, as described by Sigrdrífumál, she believed to have forged the sköp that would bind him to her for ever. She becomes aware that Grímhildr was a magician even more powerful than her. Grímhildr might even have been more cunning than her since she hit the weak link: Sigurðr who nevertheless finds Guðrún quite attractive.
This battle of witches is implicit in the texts, but I hope I could suggest its existence.
Guðrúnarkviða in forna
This poem is interesting because it explains how have been concocted Grímhildr’s sköp, her shapings.
Forði mér Grímhildr
full at drekka
svalt ok sárligt,
né ek sakar munðak;
þat var of aukit
ok sónum dreyra.
Váru í horni
hvers kyns stafir
ristnir ok roðnir,
- ráða ek né máttak;
innleið dyra (dýra).
Váru þeim bjóri
böl mörg saman,
urt alls viðar
ok akarn brunnin,
svíns lifr soðin,
því at hon sakar deyfði.
Brought to me Grímhildr
a full (horn) with drinking
cold and wounding,
not I to blame could (I could no more blame something);
it was enhanced
by earth power,
by cold and frozen sea
and by a porcine-sacrificial blood (blood of a sacrificial pig).
Hávamál 137 quotes also the “power of the earth” and the role of a corn ear in magic.
Were (written) on the horn
any kind of magic signs
carved and (blood-)reddened
- to read (them) I could not;
heather-fish (serpent) long,
of the country of the Haddings
a corn ear unmarked (not carved, intact),
bowels of a beast (any animal except a bird).
We know of a family of heroes, the Haddingjar, we however know nothing of their exact localization. Boyer states “the country of dead ones” and Orchard, “the sea” without real justification.
Were there in the beer
many evils together,
roots of all trees
and of acorns roasted,
around-dew of hearth (= soot)
entrails (coming from a) blót,
of a pig the boiled liver,
with that the pains blunted.
The goal of Grímhildr is double, to blunting Guðrún’s pain and to make her forget Sigurðr’s death.
It is obvious that we do not understand anymore the magic recipes of old. But, insofar as sköp are so present in skaldic poetry, they should have been extremely important. In another study, I will gather the whole of magic potions description in order to compare them. Here, it is enough for me to convince the reader that sköp are the methods used by the magicians to shape its details to örlög. All things considered, the örlög are the ‘raw material’ of fate, and the sköp are the result after an artist left his/her trace on them, as a piece of furniture testifies the skill of a craftsman to shape wood.
Guðrúnarkviða in fyrsta
This poem describes Guðrún’s suffering when she discovers Sigurðr’s body. It starts with a comment:
"Guðrún sat to yfir Sigurdhi dauðum… hon var búinn til at springa af harmi. Til gengu bæði konur ok karlar at hugga hana, in þat var eigi auðvelt "
Guðrún sat for Sigurðr’s corpse… she was about to burst with sadness. To her, women and men went to take care of her, but that was not easy.
In particular, her sister Gullrönd tries to comfort her by asking her to kiss the corpse’s lips and, obviously, her pain Guðrún increases. She end up insulting Brynhildr by calling her “armrar vættar (malicious soul, here = “essence of wickedness.” The last one is present and answers, which causes Gullrönd’s fury who shouts at her as follows:
Þá kvað þat Gullrönd
« Þegi þú, þjóðleið,
hefr þú æ verit,
rekr þik alda hver
vífa mest ».
Thus Gullrönd spoke,
Gjúki’s daughter girl:
“Be silent, very-hateful one,
of these words; (do not utter, very hateful one, these words)
the fate (here: an unhappy one, death) of princes
you always have been;
you unfold to these people
a bad a shape/fate/’shaping’,
(you have been) a sorrow wound
to seven kings
of women the largest.”
(the biggest destroyer of friendship between women)
Skepnu is also related to the verb skapa, to shape, and means here a shaping, as a singular form for sköp. Here, Brynhildr is accused to have shaped evil on ‘these people’, rather wrongfully, though did a lot of evil with no need of magic.
 I am quite conscious that the spell cast by Grímhildr is relative to the relation between Sigurðr and Brynhildr and not between her and Gunnar. However, the poems and saga we just have seen abundantly show that Sigurðr’s treason is the constant cause of Brynhildr’ misfortune. She is obviously wounded as a loving woman, but also as an oath faithful person. She explicitly says to Gunnar that she despises him because he is an ‘oath breaker’. She should think the same of her Sigurðr: he is indeed the most spirited man (as opposed to Gunnar) but an oath breaker nevertheless.
In this poem, Oddrún describes her misfortunes. She is Atli’s and Brynhildr’s sister. The three of them are king Budli’s children
En hann Brynhildi
bað hjalm geta,
hana kvað hann óskmey
kvað-a hann ina æðri
alna (gen. plur.) mundu
mey (acc.) í heimi,
nema mjötuðr spillti.
And he (Budli) for Brynhildr
begged (asked) the helmet to obtain,
she said that she wish-maiden (Valkyrie)
to become wanted;
Budli (humbly?) requested that Brynhildr could become a warrior. On her side, she wished to become a Valkyrie.
(he) that said that she highest
of the ‘measures’ should
maiden in the house (the world),
(he said that she was to become the highest maid reference in the world)
unless the giver of measures would waste (all that).
This stanza uses the word ‘alna’ genitive plural of alin, the length of a forearm, or any measurement. Mjöt is also a measure, and it is impossible that the skald could have been unaware of it. We can thus see here a pun on Brynhildr’s ‘measure’ and the one used by the big giver.
We have seen, in Sigurðarkviða in skamma s. 5, a similar way of speech where everything is perfect until “grimmar urðir” come in play. It is thus clear that this mjötuðr is here a form of urðr, of destiny. Recall also that the word mjötuðr is used in Sigurðarkviða in skamma s. 71, there also with a meaning similar to the one of urðr.
The last stanza concludes thus:
Sattu ok hlýddir,
meðan ek sagðak þér
mörg ill of sköp
mín ok þeira;
maðr hverr lifir
at munum sínum.
Nú er of genginn
You had sat and listened
while I told you
much evil of the shapings
mine and theirs;
(I said much evil of my and the others’ shapings)
human being each lives
with duties his.
Now is gone (ended)
the wailing of Oddrún.
Thus, the two sisters, Brynhildr and Oddrún use the word sköp to speak about their destiny, rather than the one of örlög.
Atlakviða (Dauði Atla)
Guðrún eventually marries Atli, as her mother wished. This poem, as well as the following, describes how Atli kills Guðrún’s brothers, and how the latter are avenged. In stanza 39, we reach the outcome and Guðrún in a fury takes part in the fight.
reifði hon húskarla;
sköp lét hon vaxa,
en skíran málm vaða,
æva fljóð ekki
Gold she sowed
the shining-goose, [in this time geese were not yet stupid!]
with the red rings
untied them servants;
sköp let them swell, grow,
and the pure metal ‘wade’ (stride),
never the torrent (Guðrún, as a torrent) ever
was concerned with the large house.
She sprinkles with gold the servants of the house so that they join her in the battle and she lets the shapings take power upon the participants in this battle, i.e. she boundlessly uses her magic and her gold to fight the enemy.
Atlamál in grænlenzku
In the first stanza, we understand that Atli’s warriors meet to discuss the state of affairs:
Sköp æxtu skjöldunga
- skyldu-at feigir, -
illa réðsk Atla,
átti hann þó hyggju;
Sköp they let grow ‘those of the shield’ (Skjöldungs, warriors)
- should not have been strange/near death/mad
badly Atli has been badly advised,
though he had quite a good mind;
Thus, the warriors, just as Guðrún does in Atlakviða above, cause a ‘swell’ of the sköp i.e., here, that the warriors try to shape fate in order to cause a battle. In modern language, one would say that they “increase pressure” but this removes any magic from the process, while magic is always present in the ancient Scandinavian civilization.
Högni and his brothers have been invited to meet Atli at his castle. Guðrún, who attended or spied upon the warriors’ ceremonies, knows that this is a trap. She thus sends a message in runes to warn her brothers but the messenger scrambles the runes. Another woman notices that these runes were tampered with and she tries to warn the warriors, with no success. Moreover, Högni shows such an arrogance that he cannot change his mind unless being called a coward. They will nevertheless leave. At the time of departure, Högni is his wife exchange a long glance: they do not expect to see each other again.
Sásk til síðan,
áðr í sundr hyrfi,
þá hygg ek sköp skiptu,
skilðusk vegir þeira.
They ‘saw each other’ (looked at each other) ‘towards since’ (then)
already separately ‘rotated’ (taking opposite ways)
thus I think the sköp had appointed them
their ways were branching off...
When her brothers arrive, Guðrún is afflicted to see that her try at warning them had failed.
Leitaða ek í líkna
at letja ykkr heiman,
sköpum viðr manngi,
ok skuluð þó hér komnir.
I sought a cure
to do let you at home
fates against nobody (nobody (can go) against the fates),
and it happens nevertheless that you came.
The battle rages and Guðrún’s brothers are submerged by the mass of their opponents. The battlefield is flooded with blood and we meet an unexpected way (for our time) to use verb verða, to become. The context clearly announces that they died, thus ‘to become’ is not appropriate. We can suppose, as everyone does, that it then takes the meaning: ‘to become what we all must become, i. e. a corpse’.
…flóði völlr blóði,
átján áðr fellu,
efri þeir urðu…
… flooded the (battle) field blood,
eighteen already fell,
the best of them ‘became’… (the best warriors died)
The following stanza does directly inform us the concept of destiny. It is simply an example of a very ambiguous use of the word ‘auðna, chance’.
Atli and Guðrún quarrel one last time last during Atli’s anguish, she has wounded him to death. Atli tries to justify himself by telling a part of its youth. He and his sisters (I suppose), following Sigurðr, wandered on the sea:
Þrjú várum systkin,
skæva vér létum,
skipi hvert várt stýrði,
örkuðum at auðnu,
unz vér austr kvómum.
Three we were, brothers and sisters ( (?), Oddrún, Atli and Brynhildr)
To stride we ‘let go’,
on a ship driven by,
unknown to chance/fate (led by an unknown chance/fate)
until we in the East reach.
A ship driven by an unknown chance can be a fate driven ship. But an anachronistic translation such as : “Our ship followed a random trajectory” would as much ‘make sense’. Some claims show that piety and unbelief coexisted in this civilization. Unbelievers could believe in nothing but randomness as do now many people who are as unaware of the laws of randomness as their 9th c. ancestors.
Editorial note: It can be difficult to find the heading of this poem. Grógaldr and Fjölsvinnsmál were joined together by Bugge under the name of Svipdagsmál, (Bugge, 1867, http://etext.old.no/Bugge/ . The editors do not follow always this convention.
Gróa’s son, Svipdagr, calls upon the assistance of his dead mother because he is facing an impossible mission imposed to him by his mother-in-law.
4. Gróa kvað
"Löng er för,
langir’u/’ro manna munir;
ef þat verðr,
at þú þinn vilja bíðr,
ok skeikar þá
Skuld/Skuldar at sköpum.
4. Gróa said:
Long is the journey,
long are the ways
long are the wishes/delights of the humankind;
if that may be,
with you to you goodwill (genitive) preserve
(you keep for you the goodwill)
and that then (she) twists (to your advantage)
(Skuld then twists in your favor)
Skuld [nominative] by the sköp.
(?: if possible, preserve Skuld’s favor and may her shape thus your fate.)
Verb bíða, ‘to remain, support, preserve’, has its object in the genitive, wherefrom the form vilja, genitive of vili, favor, delight. This obviously recalls verb vilja, ‘to want, desire’ but it is not well integrated in the sentence.
The plural dative sköpum implies that the sköp are regarded here as an agent of modification and not as the cause of the modification, hence my translation “to twist by the sköp.”
The reading Skuldar (gen. sing.) provides “Skuld’s favor”. This would lead to the translation: “you preserve ‘upon you’ Skuld’s favor and that then she modifies by the sköp.” Both translations are somewhat strange and we can suppose that this is a ritual formula stating “if possible, preserve Skuld’s favor and may her shape thus your fate.” In any case, Skuld is not called upon to modify the örlög of Gróa’s son, but to shape it favorably, understating that it could have been also shaped for the worse.
The word skuld means debt, which is not something to deal lightly with, it has to be refunded at any price. If we connect it to the verb skulu, must, the past forms of which are skyldi and skyldu, this would connect it to the past rather the present than as many translators claim. My argument is all the stronger as the ‘y' is pronounced as an ‘u' according to the most recent reconstitutions of the spoken Old Norse. In my opinion, Skuld is not at all connected to temporality: a debt is contracted in the past, we pay it in the present or the future. She is thus ‘simply’ the Norn of debts’ acknowledgement. We do not know the details of the debt Svigpadr must pay, except that he complains of it in stanza 3, but Skuld is in proper place here. You will find in the comment to Völuspá stanza 20 a more detailed discussion on the meaning of the Norns’ names HERE.
In order to comply to her son’s request, Gróa will utter/sing nine incantations, while standing on a stone stuck in the ground at the edge of the dead’s dwelling … magic can hardly be absent here!
Þann gel ek þér annan,
ef þú árna skalt
viljalauss á vegum:
haldi þér öllum megum,
er þú á sinnum sér.
Thus I shout/sing a second one,
if you receive will
bad luck on the ways
(may) Urðr’s bonds
hold for you the whole strength,
that you (may) in (good) company (or on a good way) be.
The expression á sinnum may also take the fixed meaning of “on the way until its end.”
The word urðr is one of the Old Norse words meaning fate, as örlög and sköp between others. It is related to the verb verða, of which the plural preterit is urðu, meaning "they became". Because urðu describes something that happened in the past, we can suppose that Urðr is related to the past. We could also understand it as the entity who draws up the assessment of all our actions. The bonds of Urðr must thus refer to the assessment of the life of Svipdagr. Gróa requires of Urðr that no force can separate Svipdagr from his past, it must remain ‘in one piece’ to be able to overcome his test.
As noticed by Bugge, this poem looks like a continuation of the precedent one. However, in this second poem, he is initially presented under the name of Vindkaldr (Wind-frozen). It is only at end of the poem which it will say that he is called Svipdagr, as in Grógaldr. If the assumption of Bugge is exact, one could thus confuse Svipdagr and Óðr, Freyja’s husband, who left her for reasons unknown, we only know that she cried gold tears at his departure [I provide all these details because, in the translations, we often see Vindkaldr pops out of nothing and mysteriously disappears at some point].
Freyja is called Menglöð in this poem, Svipdagr-Vindkaldr approaches her dwelling. He meets an unpleasant reception of the guard of the places who says to him that it does not have anything to make here. They at first insult each other by both calling a troll the other one (“Hvat er þat flagða? (Who is this troll?)),” then the guardian adds: “ok dríf þú nú vargr at vegi. (and you wipe out now, wolf/monster, toward your way).” These kindnesses being done, they can pass to the serious things and here begins a competition in knowledge. Vindkaldr-Svipdagr asks to the guard questions relating to mythology. As we see, the newcomer is the one who actually put to test the guardian. This ends when he asks a question that only Svipdagr can ask - just as Óðinn raises a last question by which he reveals his identity. In this case, the loser seems quite happy to have lost the contest, he only is a bit concerned by the possibility of an error: he justly fears Freyja’s wrath in case the newcomer is not Svipdagr.
One of the questions Vindkaldr asks the guardian is relative to the name of the dogs that control also the entrance of the place. The guardian is at first a little scorning (“if you want that knowledge…”) but he ends up provide the number Freyja’s maids: eleven. S. 38 will give us nine names from these eleven. From our point of view, last the line is most interesting, it provides an indication on the meaning of rök in Ragnarök: it is “unz rjúfask regin (until the gods break).” It is seen here that rök is paraphrased by ‘to be destroyed’, which will enlighten us in the final understanding of this word.
Gífr heitir annarr,
en Geri annarr,
ef þú vilt þat vita;
er þeir varða,
unz rjúfask regin.
The guardian says:
Gífr is called one
and Geri the other,
if you want that to know;
guards to the eleven ones (they are guardians for eleven ones)
that protect them, (and they protect them)
until the gods break. (until the gods break down.)
Another question which Vindkaldr raises is related to Yggdrasill. The whole exchange explains us why it is also called: “mjötuðr”, measure-supplier, a word that we know and which has nothing to do with the word ‘tree’. The guard explains him that its fruits (undoubtedly yew berries) help during a difficult childbirth and this is why Yggdrasill is human ones’ “measure-supplier.”
Út af hans aldni
skal á eld bera
fyr kelisjúkar konur;
þats þær innar skyli,
sá er hann með mönnum mjötuðr.
Since its fruits
will be in the fire carried
for the women in labour;
outside to turn
what to them inside should,
from this ‘it’ (! or rather ‘he’) is the measure-supplier for the human ones.
From the point of view of mythology, this denomination is also very interesting. It is seen that some ‘objects’, such as Yggdrasill and Óðroerir, have a soul as the poet said and that, in exceptional circumstances, they can play a direct role. We will meet this phenomenon with Óðroerir in stanza 2 of Hrafnagaldr below. In such a condition, can we still call them an ‘it’?
Lastly, Svipdagr, which has just won his knowledge duel (in a way a ‘hypocrite’ one, as one often says of Óðinn) ends providing his name. The last three lines are famous since they clearly say that örlög is not likely to be modified under any pretext. The sköp really do not modify it, but they shape what is not yet decided in it. For example, all human ones carry death in their örlög. It is possible that, at least for some of them, the how or when of it is not fixed in their örlög.
Svipdagr ek heiti,
Sólbjart hét minn faðir,
þaðan rákumz (Bugge: ráumk ) vindar kalda vegu;
kveðr engi maðr,
þótt þat sé við löst lagit.
Svipdagr (Swift-day) I am called
Sólbjart (Sun-brilliance) was called my father,
from there led us winds by a frozen way;
of Urðr the word
says/sings/challenges no man,
although this one (word) with error may be kept.
Against Urðr’ word
no one speaks/sings
even if this word is laid by mistake.
The verb reka, to lead, does ráku in the plural preterit; this is why I preferred the reading of this word given by Rask.
The verbs kveðja and kveða do to both kveðr with the third anybody of the code present. Kveðja can mean ‘to challenge. Kveða means to say/sing. The idea of ‘singing’ evokes an attempt to oppose the örlög by magic.
 In stanza 2 of Völuspá, the central tree of the world is called: mjötviðr, which thus means measure-tree, which embarrasses the translators. C-V. sees here a transcription mistake.
On kélisjúkr. This word is translated ‘hysterical’ by C-V, ‘sickly’ by de Vries. It is clear, according to lines 4 and 5, that the stanza speaks of a difficult childbirth which, indeed, can drive women to pain-caused insanity, but has nothing to do with hysteria or a morbid temperament. Moreover, Lex. Poet. precisely gives: ‘utero laborantes feminæ’. This shows how much it has been difficult to introduce, except in Latin, this delicate topic.
Lassen’s ON version
YK’s literal translation
Lassen’s English translation
Guessed the Æsir
of (some) ill purpose,
the Wights with runes;
powerless was (she) to protect
[But] the Æsir divined
the whole plan,
the unpredictable ones caused muddle
with the god’s runes (or secrets).
Óðhrærir had to
look after Urður (fate),
he could not protect [her]
from the greater part [of the plan].
Urðr is one of the three Nornes whose name means ‘destiny’. Óðhrærir is the mead of poetry that brings knowledge to whom drinks of it. After a long quest, Óðinn puts his life at risk in order to recover it and loses there a share of his honor because he has to break an ‘oath on the ring’ to achieve this goal, as explained in Hávamál stanza 110.
The present poem describes the moments just before Ragnarök (also referred at by ‘the worst winter’) and, in addition, it refers to myths little or not known so that its interpretation is delicate. For more details see my translation with accompanying notes in Hrafnagaldr.
Urðr seems here representing gods’ destiny. The poem suggests that Ragnarök occurs following a falsification of the örlög, written down by the Norns and thus by Urðr herself.
I suppose that the author of the poem wanted to refer to another magic force called sköp. Our whole mythology seems to indicate that, in fact, the universe’s and our gods’ örlög announces an unescapable disaster that will disrupt this universe. Nothing says, however, when nor how this catastrophe will take place. The supernatural entities that the poem calls ‘verpir’ (I translate this word by “twisters” and Lassen by “unpredictable ones”) will, according to my interpretation, use their runes and, according to Lassen’s, modify Óðinn’s runes in order to obtain the magic ‘shapings’, the sköp, which will shape örlög in such a way that Ragnarök will take place tomorrow and will evolve according to Völuspá’s last stanzas.
Still to analyze :
saga citations of örlög, Urðr and sköp etc.