Örlög (the fates) in Völuspá
Völuspá describes the fundamental components of humanity: what defines a human person? These are given in Völuspá’s stanzas 17, 18, 19, 20 and 31.
You will find these stanzas, with a literal translation HERE
First of all, let us stress that stanza 17 speaks of a couple, Ask and Embla, a man and a woman, and provides two features both of them miss to belong to humankind. I want to stress that these features are common to men and women. This forever splits old Germanic spirituality from the one of all the cultures in which the gods differentiate man and woman in allotting their humanity [Note 1].
Before going into more detail, let us consider another general characteristic of these human features. Stanza 17 names two of them, but they are not a ‘gift of the gods’, contrary to three others, described in stanza 18 and which will be gifted to humankind by the gods. This suggests that we should not wait for any godly assistance to get these two features missing in s. 17. It (‘thus’) means also that the three features gifted to humankind in s. 18 should suffice to obtain the two missing ones of s. 17.
The two deficiencies described in s. 17 are to be lítt megandi i.e. ‘having little strength to do’ (i.e. weak and not active) and being ‘örlöglauss’, without destiny.
The three gifts of the gods, quoted in s. 18 are: önd, breath, óðr, intelligence and lá, properly the sea along the shores, a rather obvious image of our internal water, blood, lymph and cell water. It will be called here ‘vitality’ that gives its beautiful color to a human face as lá does, as said by s. 18.
In other words, breath, intelligence and vitality are gifts of the gods and must be enough for humankind to find the means of creating its own capacity of action and its destiny. Note that this interpretation exactly matches the modern belief of being able of “self-forging our destiny.”
The three Norns rushing the host towards battle
However, this incredibly modern point of view, born from stanzas 17 and 18, must immediately be moderated by information given later, in s. 20. This last stanza teaches us that three Norns decide of the human destiny by ‘scraping wood tablets’ [Note 2], i.e. by carving runes. There is a compelling aspect in a destiny decided by higher powers, and this contradicts the above interpretation, a voluntarily hasty one. The problem of the örlög is thus more complex than stanzas 17 and 18 implied it.
To have a destiny is certainly a fundamental component of human life though it opposes our need for freedom. For better understanding than stanza 17 meaning, we should reconsider the relation between the capacity to act and örlög. The capacity to act opens the doors of freedom whereas örlög tends to close them. If we state that rebelling against our destiny is, to some extent, forsaking a human statute, it should at once be recalled that the first human capacity, the one of acting, moderates the destiny inexorability.
It finally seems that a human destiny is wedged between an inexorable destiny and a capacity for acting: human ones cannot do more than to do their best! Despite everything, the capacity to act provides us the possibility of discovering our own destiny instead of blindly undergoing it.
Once we will have recognized and understood our destiny, its apparent absurdity will melt and we will become able to achieve it with a lightened heart.
This at least how I understand the message the völva sent to humanity.
But this is nothing but than my not strongly argued opinion. Let us now see now what deeper understanding we can reach of these stanzas in Völuspá.
The gods did us three gifts.
The first, Óðinn’s gift, is breath. We should never forget the obvious mechanical process that the shape and disposition of our ribs makes it possible that our lungs would fill up inflate air. This is for the body point of view. Beyond that, though, breath enables us to identify with the forces of air (or celestial forces) and also to have “a lot of breath” that is to say, to find both inspiration and the guts to carry on a difficult task.
The second, Hoenir’s gift, is intelligence. From the body point of view it is our brain and it should not be forgotten that this faculty, of which we human are so proud, finds its source in one of our body parts. In addition, it is obviously the ability for proper thinking, for placing ourselves in space and time and for behaving rationally. Intelligence is also partner of courage in order to help us in a complex task, which can even become pleasant because it titillates our intelligence.
The third, Lóðurr’s gift, is ‘the sea along the shore’. The water in our body is ensures its working and constitutes the largest part of it. Here still, the bodily aspect of our inner water should not be neglected. It, though, is also what puts to us in contact with the combined forces of water and the ground, as the sea the waves of which break on a beach. That is: a quite complete image of the earthly forces. In addition, this internal water is the paramount source of life and joy in life which gives us a “beautiful hue”, as pointed out by s. 18 last line as an expression of our zest for life.
Now, we may perhaps better understand why the gods did not think sensible to provide us with a specific capacity for action nor with an örlög. Let us combine courage, intelligence and joy in life and we will at once obtain a particularly effective way to motivate us to act “as it is necessary” i.e. without gloom, stupidity nor despondency.
Indeed, discouragement is often the cause of our failures and the joy in life is what helps us not give up in front of the more overwhelming problems – otherwise, “rather commit suicide” would be an obvious solution to all problems.
The case of örlög is more complicated to analyze. I believe that the gods did not want to take care of our örlög because they knew well that this topic belongs to the Norns and that, in our religion, the gods themselves are driven by a destiny. They also know that Norns do not deal with the ‘small details’ of our lives. As it is said that Norns are the “world Hamingjur” [Note 3] and they determine only the broad outline of our small individual destinies. We will not escape, for example, to global warming which seems to belong to humankind’s örlög. There however exist thousand global ways to oppose this warming, and thousand other individual ones to go through this warming with the fewest possible personal harmful consequences. This depends on courage, intelligence and joy in life of the present humankind, although we are all inexorably embedded in humankind’s destiny. Those who did not believe in the global warming and the states that refuse to take into account, typically behave as anyone who reject our gods’ gifts and thus become unable to see their destiny.
Some people deny the existence of a destiny, others are blindly subjected to it. Both these standpoints deny the highest powers driving us or deny the gifts of our gods. These are two parallel ways towards a personal and social disaster.
You find here more complete presentation of Völuspá
(Though under revision from Nov. 2014 until…)
It is interesting to compare, from this point of view, the Scandinavian myth with one of the Sumerian myths of the creation of humanity. The great Sumerian god Enki quarrels with Ninhursaja, his wife, because she grew eight plants of which he did not determine the destiny. He hastens to do so and Ninhursaja is furious with the destiny inflicted her plants - they will be used as food, which she did not wish. She curses Enki who then sickens and suffers in eight parts of his body. The dispute is then settled by a crafty fox conciliator and Ninhursaja begins taking care of Enki’ diseases.
Associated to Enki’s healed pains are born eight children, gods or goddesses. The first two children and the last one are male and the five others seem to be all female. When Enki’s ribs are looked after, Ninhursaja gives birth to a seventh child, a goddess, Ninti the future “goddess of the month.”
In this Sumerian myth, going back to at least 5000 years, beings of the two sexes are created in sequence and we easily observe, without being able to know its meaning or not, that the men begin and close the procedure.
A complete French (sorry) version is available at http://www.nordic-life.org/MNG/MytholSumer.pdf
This assertion becomes obvious when we realize that, in stanza 20, line 7 “skáru á skíði (they scraped on small planks)” has no direct object complement and line 12 “örlög seggja (destinies of humankind)” misses a verb.
This indicates, as usual in skaldic poetry, that it is judicious to couple them if this results in a meaningful sentence. Here: "They scraped on small planks human destinies".
You will find a detailed discussion of this topic at http://www.nordic-life.org/MNG/Volusp17-20et31.htm
This way of speech is given by Cleasby-Vigfusson at the word hamingja. It probably results from an interpretation of the two occurrences of this word in the poetic Edda, in VafÞrúðnismál s. 49 and Vegtamskvida (the dream of Baldr) stanza known as ‘d’ in Bugge’s the edition. A Hamingja is a protective spirit (the word hamingja means also ‘luck’) which attaches itself to some members of a clan in order to protect the clan. The stanzas a-d are not often translated. Here is first half of ‘d’:
Baldr’s premonitory dreams put the Æsir in a state of panic and, besides, all omens confirm that Baldr must soon die. Then the ‘d’ stanza starts as follows:
Valföðr to uggir,
Father of Death suspects
Óðinn suspect that
van sé tekit,
lack is obtained,
something is lacking
the haminjur he thinks
he thinks that the hamingjur
may have disappeared
In other words, the situation appears desperate to Óðinn and this is described as being the Hamingjur disappearance.