Örlög (Fates) and Sköp (‘Shapings’) in
The title of the great poem Hávamál (Háva-mál = High’s-word) by itself announces that the god Óðinn speaks to us through the skalds who wrote down this poem. It contains164 stanzas, many of them alluding to destiny, particularly the 95 first ones that advise on the way to a proper life behavior. We will study the ones specifying the meaning Óðinn gives to the word örlög, even if they do not explicitly use it.
We will start with stanza 41 which provides a somewhat trite example in which fate is considered as unavoidable and constraining, as it happens in most sagas quotations and the Anglo-Saxon wyrd. Other stanzas give interesting precise details.
Stanza 53 provides an example of a use of verb verða which should have attracted more of the experts' attention. The traditional meaning of ‘to become’ is obviously possible, but in this context, it can be understood here as being “to be fated” and, as if by sheer coincidence, it is a plural preterit and thus in the form ‘urðu’.
Stanza 56 is the only one which explicitly uses the word örlög and, together with stanza 15, it introduces the unexpected idea of “non-sadness,” as associated to the unawareness of our destiny, i.e. to the bliss of a life associated with this unawareness. Three other stanzas give advice in order to improve its destiny.
Stanza 126, in a hidden way (according to my personal interpretation) gives the advice to avoid seeking influence on other human’s fates because that would only bring you a severe social rejection, Óðinn says.
Stanza 59 introduced a concept, to us an almost obvious, the one of the importance to feel motivated in our life, just as a modern ‘coach’ could advise it. It is necessary to take care of ourselves and to lead an active life, to avoid nonchalance, if we wishes to achieve the goals to which feel fated.
Lastly, stanza 141 provides us the difficult golden rule of an harmonious destiny: to be knowledgeable, that is well-educated in all topics and especially in magic, together with being constantly creative.
You will find HERE the links to a literal and annotated translation of Hávamál.
The unexpected destiny:
With weapons and clothing (or dangers)
friends should take delight,
this what is the most obvious.
These who give back in turn, and give again,
stay friends the longest time
if it ‘undergoes’ to become well.
Several stanzas of Hávamál, like this one, describe the way in which a friendship of past times was built in the best possible way. The last line alludes to destiny. The Norse words used here are “ef þat bíðr at verða vel. (if that ‘suffers’ to becoming well).” The verb bíða means ‘to wait for/to suffer/to undergo’. A law is (or is not) respected and a friendship will last long only if the Norns’ law, örlög, wants it. This fatalistic form of speech about destiny is found in many texts that incidentally refer to destiny. That looks like a stereotyped way of speech more than a really thoughtful one.
This mosaic found at Pompeii shows how much widespread has been this way of speech, mixing fate, chance and wheel of fortune.
This image is supposed to represent destiny.
A kind of structure is based on the attributes of poverty (on the right), of royalty (on the left) and (center) a cranium (death), supported by a butterfly and a wheel.
In this mythology, a butterfly represents a dead soul.
lítil eru geð guma.
Því at allir menn
hálf er öld hvár.
(go with) small seas,
small are the minds of men.
Because all humans
do not become equally wise/foreseeing,
[or: were note equally fated to be wise/forseeing ones]
humankind is a (scant?) half of one of both.
This stanza is translated with comments HERE
The meaning of this stanza is quite clear: “To small sand-banks answer small seas” certainly alludes to the fact we are able to see in whole a sand-bank, while we can see no more than a part of a sea. Thus we have to evaluate the size of something by what we can see of it. The fifth one speaks of ‘something’ of which half of humankind is on one side, and the other half on the other side, and the context makes it obvious that this ‘something’ is wisdom.
The alternative translation I propose for the 3rd line does not change the meaning of this stanza. It is here just to stress that the concept of destiny is present in this line.
Moreover, the two other verbs, eru (3rd line) and er (sixth line) are in present, while urðu is the plural preterit of verb verða, to become. Either we attribute this tense discordance to a poetical rule making verða-t impossible, or it is necessary to see here the poet’s choice to recall us that some are fated to wisdom and that others are not : it implies that as of their birth, they were…” and the preterit becomes necessary.
The knowledge of our own destiny and bliss of life:
stanzas 56 and 15
Not over-much wise
should be each human being,
never (striving) towards wisdom;
(does) not (stay) in front of the wise one
whose mind lacks the most of sadness.
Stanza 15 (lines 4-5-6):
glad and happy
will (be) each man
until he abides by his death.
The three first lines 56 state that wisdom in excess of is not desirable, we should not ` constantly strives towards the state of wisdom. The last line of 56 describes in a slightly complex way the state of mind of a wise one who does not know his/her destiny (because it is not “facing him/her”). Our modern society tends to rather denounce the abuse alcohol than the one of wisdom. Incidentally, note however that in another stanza Óðinn denounces also alcoholic abuse. Here, it the abuse of wisdom is the topic and we have to acknowledge that it could not possibly be looked upon as a flaw. Imagine that too wise individuals were as much ostracized as alcoholic ones! We should however remember that in old Scandinavian civilization, wisdom largely equates knowledge and that knowledge includes magic. Óðinn’s remark thus underlines the appeal, undoubtedly excessive, that wizards had for unfolding their own örlög.
We also know that Frigg and Óðinn knew everyone’s örlög. To some extent, looking for our own destiny means to compete with the gods, and this is this impertinence is perhaps not really advisable for a simple human.
In addition, stanza 15 specifies that each one should live a merry life throughout. When we consider it in the light of s. 56, we realize that s. 15 implicitly states also that it is wise to avoid too much concern for one’s own destiny. The reason that Óðinn gives is that the knowledge of one’s own örlög brings a “spirit of sadness,” which opposes to the advice given by stanza 15. It follows that s. 15 are not a minor stanza though it advises a form of happy unconcern. It is quite straightforwardly a deeply Heathen stanza that rejects asceticism, such as the one liked to Christian holiness or Buddhist illumination, i.e. the of a spirituality that aims at leaving the statute of simple human being full of ‘gross’ bodily joys.
He will rise early
he who reaches poets (or gets hold of workforce)
and goes towards the conscience of his verse-making (his poetical works),.
(he goes into) much delaying
who sleeps the whole morning,
under (the urge of) impulses half of wealth (or fate) (is won)
The meaning of this stanza is ambiguous and as one notes it in the translation above. See the detailed comments of this stanza at ‘IntroNewHavamalEng’ (given above) in order to get an explanation of this translation.
All the words used can either evoke a work, a ‘business’, or a poetic work. The translators generally chose the most prosaic version but I do not see Óðinn being impassioned in the ways for becoming rich whereas he has been impassioned for poetry: In order to recover the hydromel of poetry, it went as far as risking his life, and then breaking a sacred oath, as Hávamál stanza 110 explicitly says. Hávamál poetic context thus suggests a poet whose destiny will fail to be properly achieved if he/she lacks motivation.
We do not imply here that a businessman does not deserve a destiny but that Óðinn addresses here more certainly poets than the good managers of their fortune.
Do not interfere with other people’s destiny:
Hávamál 126 ***
Here are two possible understandings of this stanza
Would not be a shoe craftsman
nor a shaft craftsman,
unless you do them for yourself,
if a shoe is ill-shaped
or a shaft is bent
then misfortune will be called on you.
Do not wield your art to move things
nor to stop an action (or: send a curse, cp s. 145),
except when you deal with your own destiny,
if the things do not move anymore
or if the action (or sending) turns badly,
then hatred will fall down upon you.
The commonplace version evokes the destiny of two particular craftsmen, but we understand well that they are not other than examples: Any defective object triggers a customer’s complaint. It then seems incomprehensible that Óðinn would advise a complete stop to the country’s economy under pretext that any craftsman takes risks.
It seems that already in pre-Christian times, wizards were not very popular, so that the extension of the meaning of the stanza to the magic practices is easy to understand. Wizard who throw curses, in particular, intrude in the destiny of their customers in a decisive way and the changes they bring are difficult to control. It is thus seldom that hatred does not fall down on them.
Óðinn’s advice can also be understood as: “Do not be so full of yourself as to forget weighing the risks to act on your customers’ örlög.”
To be creative and knowledgeable:
I then became fertile
and was full of knowledge
and grew and well throve,
a word, out of my speech,
looked for another word,
a word, out of my speech,
a deed, out of my deeds,
looked for another deed
This stanza explains how to obtain a harmonious destiny, according to which our spirit is fertile and our life is thriving.
The ‘recipe’ is given by the last four lines: when our past actions and words intermingle with our future ones, and this happens without contradiction, we then obtain a harmonious destiny, as the one described in the three first lines.
Let us nevertheless notice that the advice provided here is terribly difficult to perform. Admittedly the past and the future always often interact, but a great sincerity associated to a very clear mind are necessary so that the actions or the words of the past do not hamper the ones of the future, as Óðinn recommends it.
Stanzas 84, 98
These stanzas deal with a less restricting version of örlög, called sköp (the ‘shapings’) in the texts.
This stanza is subtitled as: “Does Hávamál say that women are frivolous?” I send you back to HavamalNew to look further into this aspect of this stanza meaning. The question that we are asking now is: does this stanza call upon the concept of destiny?
The word used line 5 is also a past participle of the verb skapa I translate by ‘shaped’ without it being necessary to evoke destiny. As in stanza 53, we nevertheless could correctly translate line 5 by “their hearts are destined to” without changing its meaning. But we find another instance of this form in Reginsmál’s stanza 6: “verðr-a sæla sköpuð; (becomes-non happy the shaped one)” where this is an obvious curse cast by Loki to Hreiðmarr, as explained in OrlogEddaEng and the associated tale “NibelungsThreeCurses.” This curse obviously shapes Hreiðmarr’s and Fáfnir’s fates.
Old Norse version
skyli manngi trúa
né því, er kveðr kona,
því at á hverfanda hvéli
váru þeim hjörtu sköpuð,
brigð í brjóst of lagið.
In the words of a girl
no man should have confidence
nor in what an (adult) woman says;
because on a revolving wheel
their hearts have been shaped,
cutting (or flexibility, or change or inconstancy) is lying in their chest.
The meaning of word sköpuð is not obvious since, here, it not a straightforward past participle of the verb skapa, since it carries also a value of shaping the fate. All translators use the first option and translate “the women’s heart is shaped/made on a revolving wheel.” Associated to this verb is the word skap, state of mind or mood. Being associated the verb skapa, to shape, its plural, sköp, tends to take the meaning of the ‘shapings’ that are worked upon our life, i.e. our fate. In Poetic Edda, we meet some ten occurrences of the word sköp and all of them relate without ambiguity to the fates. Moreover, there are 5 occurrences of sköpuð. One of them, (Reginsmál s. 5) describes a curse cast by Loki on a person whose ‘sköpuð’ will be unhappy and the meaning of ‘fates’ is obvious. In the four other instances, the meaning of ‘shaped’ is as possible as the one of ‘fated, destined’. In the present stanza, the mystical meaning of ‘fated’ is not really obvious, except that what else than destiny could shape women’s heart on a revolving wheel, in the context of using the word sköpuð?
This is why I do not understand these lines as kind of jest à la Offenbach. Óðinn states the women’s fates (sköp). He does imply that women are really brigð (see below) because they are fated to. If this word means ’fickle’ as everyone seems to believe, then for one Óðinn says a stupid thing, and for two and more convincingly, the illustrations of such women provided in the following stanzas do not fit at all this feature. Billings mær is incredibly crafty and cutting since she joins insult to rupture (see s. 96-102). Gunnlöð is not at all frivolous nor cutting, she is broken by Óðinn, showing her weakness. These are two examples which occur in worlds where the women are not respected, they have no other choice than being cutting (‘breaking’) or being broken, which explains their sköp, as Óðinn recalls here.
“Auk nær aftni
skaltu, Óðinn, koma,
ef þú vilt þér mæla man;
allt eru ósköp
nema einir viti
slíkan löst saman.”
Billing’s maid says:
“Also near the evening
you shall, Ódhinn, come
if you will request a mistress for you;
all (we both) are fateless (dead)
except if (us) alone are aware
of our misbehavior.”
I say again that the neutral word skap makes sköp in the plural. In the singular, it means ‘form’, ‘state, condition’. In the plural, it takes the meaning of “what was formatted, shaped” and becomes ‘fate, fortune’. I took the freedom to call it ‘shapings’. It is prefixed here by the negation ‘ó’ and we can understand it means ‘not-destiny, not-fortune’ or ‘death’.
Billings mær clearly states that if they have sex where they stand now, it will be known and both will be killed. She also states the choices open to them and that they are going to shape their ‘non-fates’. In this case the sköp are decided by the actors who will “shape themselves their destiny,” as we say nowadays. Inversely, Loki’s curse in Reginsmál 5 shapes by magic other people's sköp.
In our rationalists’ point of view, sköp can be seen either as a personal rational choice or as curses cast by a wizard who asserts than someone deserves such a fate. In a world where magic permeates everyday life, as in the ancient Scandinavian world, these two points of view merge into one since each ‘learned one’ is to some extent a wizard.