Wyrd, Urðr, ørlög and sköp

 

 

I undertook to analyze these three concepts by starting from the original texts using these words. This asks for quite a large work of information collection which I began with the Anglo-Saxon wyrd. I acknowledge that my research is not really exhaustive because I do not easily read the Anglo-Saxon language. However, for some translations that looked too far from the literal meaning I took the freedom to restore this literal meaning, while broadly keeping the meaning of the translations made by the specialists in this language.

For the Norse texts, i.e. Urðr and ørlög, you will find my own translations and my quotations will be almost exhaustive, including poetry and sagas.

 

Presently available on örlög:

örlög in Völuspá

örlög in Hávamál

örlög and sköp in the other eddic poetry  (now completed)

 

Quotations containing the word wyrd

 

This score of quotations tells what we really know about Anglo-Saxon wyrd. They belong, except the two last one, to texts classified as Heathen because they do not cover biblical subjects.

You will see that the Heathen texts show some Christian influence but, symmetrically even the Christian texts do not completely forget their Heathen origins.

 

The dictionaries explain that the words wyrd (= fate in Anglo-Saxon) and urðr (= fate in Norse) are cognates, i. e. at some point in the past they have a common etymology. This is expressed by an even more striking link. Wyrd is related to the verb weorðan, to become. The Norse word urðr is related to the verb verða, to become, (urðu in its the plural preterit = they became).

Nevertheless, the Norn Urðr is certainly different from Norn Verðandi (present participle of verb to become = becoming). On the other hand, the wyrd does not seem to differentiate between what became and what is becoming.

 

 

Beowulf

Line 455

Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel. Fare the fate has it shall.

 

Line 475

wigheap gewanod;      the warriors disappear

hie wyrd forsweop       since wyrd swept them away

on Grendles gryre.      by Grendel’s violence.

 

Line 572

Wyrd oft nereð                         Wyrd oft protects

unfægne eorl,                          the non-doomed earl,

þonne his ellen deah.               when he is of courageous hue.

 

Line 734

Ne wæs þæt wyrd þa gen        Let wyrd prevent

þæt he ma moste                     that he takes more

manna cynnes                         men of the kin

ðicgean ofer þa niht.               often again after this night.

 

Line 1056

þone ðe Grendel ær                the one that Grendel already

mane acwealde,                      killed

swa he hyra ma wolde,           and greedy he would kill others

nefne him witig god                 if not the wise god

wyrd forstode                          had protected their wyrd,

ond ðæs mannes mod.             and the man’s (Beowulf’s) bold mood.

 

Line 1205

hyne wyrd fornam,                  him wyrd destroyed

syþðan he for wlenco              when by arrogance,

wean ahsode,                          he looked for danger,

fæhðe to Frysum.                    enmity to the Frisian.

 

Line 1233

Wyrd ne cuþon,                       Wyrd they did not know,

geosceaft grimme,                   fate grim,

swa hit agangen wearð           that they possessed would

eorla manegum,                      the many earls

syþðan æfen cwom                  when the evening comes.

 

Note : geosceaft means also ‘fate’.

 

Line 1526

ac unc furður sceal                  such further shall

weorðan æt wealle,                 become near the wall,

swa unc wyrd geteoð,              such wyrd has settled,

metod manna gehwæs.            fate of humankind everywhere.

 

v 2040

wyrd ungemete neah               wyrd excessively near,

se ðone gomelan                     then the aged

gretan sceolde,                        to approach shall,

secean sawle hord,                  seize the soul’s hoard,

sundur gedælan                       sunder to pieces

lif wið lice,                               life with body,

 

Line 2575

swa him wyrd ne gescraf         thus to him wyrd not allotted

hreð æt hilde.                          victory at war.

 

Line 2814

Ealle wyrd forsweop               all the wyrd swept away

mine magas                             my family

to metodsceafte,                       to their fate-building,

eorlas on elne                          earls in their courage.

 

Note : metodsceaft = fate-construction , death.

 

The wanderer

 

Line 5 

Wyrd bið ful aræd!      Wyrd will be fully resolute!

 

Line 15

Ne mæg werig mod     Not may weary mood

wyrde wiðstondan,      wyrd withstand,

ne se hreo hyge           nor does scabby heart

helpe gefremman.        help bring.

 

Line. 100

wæpen wælgifru,         the weapons death-givers,

wyrd seo mære,           wyrd famous,

ond þas stanhleoþu     and those cliffy stones

stormas cnyssað,         storms strike,

 

 

The seafarer

 

Wyrd biþ swiþre,                                 Wyrd is stronger

Meotud meahtigra,                              God mightier

þonne ænges monnes gehygd.            than any man could think.

 

 

Maxims 2

 

Line 5

wyrd byð swiðost, winter byð cealdost.

wyrd is the strongest, winter the coldest.

 

The Ruin

 

Line 24

Beorht wæron burgræced,      Shiny was the fortress

burnsele monige,                     bathes many,

heah horngestreon,                 haughty the abundance of pinnacles,

heresweg micel,                       martial sounds many,

meodoheall monig                   the mead-hall many

dreama full,                             of joy full,

oþþæt þæt onwende                until this moved

wyrd seo swiþe.                       wyrd this swept away.

 

The Rhyming Poem

 

Line 70

Me þæt wyrd gewæf,               For me what wyrd spun,

ond gewyrht forgeaf,               and my deeds brought,

þæt ic grofe græf,                    is that I a trench dig,

 

Dream of the road

 

Line 74

þa us man fyllan ongan                       then the men to cut down began

ealle to eorðan.                                   all to the earth.

þæt wæs egeslic wyrd!                        Was that a horrible wyrd !

 

 

Here I give now two examples of purely Christian texts that use the word wyrd.

 

Part of Exodus called The Crossing of the Red Sea

 

Line 458

ne ðær ænig becwom              not one came back

herges to hame,                       of the warriors at home,

ac behindan beleac                 but locked behind

wyrd mid wæge.                      by wyrd among the waves.

þær ær wegas lagon,               Where was a way laying,

mere modgode,                       the sea became furious

mægen wæs adrenced.            the army was drowned.

 

 

Life of St Guthlac

Line 1351

þroht þeodengedal,                 suffering God-separation

þonne seo þrag cymeð,           when that times comes

wefen wyrdstafum.                  spun by the wyrd-staff.

 

Note : stæf mean ‘stick, staff’, wyrdstafum = with wyrd’s stick (see the final footnote).

 

Comments

 

These examples show that the concept of wyrd has been assimilated by Anglo-Saxon Christianity, i.e. by Christians still born among Heathen concepts: The Jews are saved because the Egyptian warriors have got a ‘bad’ wyrd. This would be deemed today as being slightly iconoclastic. Worse, St Guthlac’s wyrd is what broke the connection between him and his lord God!

Conversely, it is also obvious that Heathen poems show some influence from a Christian way of thinking, which carries a Roman influence. Even though the witig god in Beowulf’s line 1056 could well be Heathen god, Navigator’s Meotud (= fate, God, Christ) almost certainly is the Christian God. However, again here, paralleling God’s and wyrd powers is iconoclastic.

The power of wyrd is described as being huge, it sweeps away, overpowers, allots, grants, it secretly makes ready to strike us, it is egeslic and mære, that is terrible and famous or ‘great’ [sometimes translated as ‘inexorable’ in the online versions.]. We also note that, according to the texts, it is described in a contradictory way.

For example, Beowulf line 1526 says that “wyrd has settled, fate of humankind everywhere, line 5 of Wandering known as which it "is fully decided" i.e. one cannot to it be opposed and this direction is implied in many of other places.

Its absolute power is nevertheless several times disputed. Beowulf line 572 “the earl of courageous hue” is ‘protected by’ the wyrd, implying that courage may accommodate the wyrd; line 1205 announces a rational, such as arrogance, may trigger a bad wyrd; The Wanderer line 15 states that a scabby heart nor a weary mood “may withstand” wyrd (implying that the opposed dispositions might keep it away); line 70 of the Rhyming Poem says that wyrd and our deeds both lead us to death (I suppose the ‘trench’ is a grave).

We finally observe the idea that human ones are partially responsible for their destiny, which is so well summarized by the Christian formula: “God helps those that help themselves.” This is why I observe here some Christian influence, which bursts up in the present civilization in which each one wants to and believes he/she can drive her/his own destiny.

 

Another influence, that one of Heathen origin, is partial assimilation of wyrd to the Greek Parquae. For example, both, Rhyming Poem and Life of St Guthlac say that wyrd spun the hero’s life. We see in these ways pf speech the origin of this practice describing our destiny as a fabric woven by the wyrd. This practice is thus justified, for the wyrd, by very former practices. In studying Old Norse ørlög, we will see that this weaving has nothing to do with Heathen Germanic mythology: the Norns do not spin the örlög, they carve it on “wooden tablets.”

 

 

Note: a digression on sticks.

 

 Hávamál speaks several times about a stafr that, in stanza 142, everyone agrees to translate by ‘runes’ (i.e. a staff upon which runes are carved). This word also took the meaning of ‘written letters, words’ because of this use. On the other hand, in stanzas 59, 27 and 8 the translators do their best in order to very to avoid using this meaning, magic being allowed only as a last resort. See HERE my long comments of stanza 8 in which try to counter Dronke’s arguments claiming that stafr as a suffix is nothing but a “final derivative.”

You could note that I translated here the word wyrdstafum by “the word of the wyrd” because it is very probable that St Guthlac did not have a runes nor ogams engraved stick and, more obviously, that weaveing is not performed with a stick, although one spins with one. The traditional translation of wyrdstaf, destiny decree, moves the ides of a staff to the one of ‘written letters’, which suggests Scandinavian influences, by the way perfectly possible ones, on this Anglo-Saxon word.