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 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.
Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel. Fare the fate has it shall.
wigheap gewanod; the warriors disappear
hie wyrd forsweop since wyrd swept them away
on Grendles gryre. by Grendel’s violence.
Wyrd oft nereð Wyrd oft protects
unfægne eorl, the non-doomed earl,
þonne his ellen deah. when he is of courageous hue.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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,
swa him wyrd ne gescraf thus to him wyrd not allotted
hreð æt hilde. victory at war.
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.
Wyrd bið ful aræd! Wyrd will be fully resolute!
Ne mæg werig mod Not may weary mood
wyrde wiðstondan, wyrd withstand,
ne se hreo hyge nor does scabby heart
helpe gefremman. help bring.
wæpen wælgifru, the weapons death-givers,
wyrd seo mære, wyrd famous,
ond þas stanhleoþu and those cliffy stones
stormas cnyssað, storms strike,
Wyrd biþ swiþre, Wyrd is stronger
Meotud meahtigra, God mightier
þonne ænges monnes gehygd. than any man could think.
wyrd byð swiðost, winter byð cealdost.
wyrd is the strongest, winter the coldest.
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
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
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
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
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).
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.