In the sagas of Norse legend, there are many mysterious and powerful beings. Dragons, frost giants, gods, and goddesses who command the forces of nature and the laws of magic. Maybe the most influential of all are the mysterious Norns, the weavers of fate itself.
Great Odin foresees the future of the worlds he has created and uses all the power and wisdom at his command to avert the course of destiny. Yet he seems doomed to failure and so far all of his efforts have led him only closer to the very evils which he sought to avoid.
The laws of fate seem beyond the powers of anyone to escape and yet they are not blind. There is a category of beings, all female, who are the weavers of destiny for mortal, god, and giant alike. All beings come under their power and must ultimately bend to their allotted destinies.
These beings are named the Norns, or the Nornir in old Norse. Some are the daughters of the dwarf Dvalin, others are Jotun maidens, and others still are elves or even of the races of the gods. Whatever their former lives, their common fate is now to rule the lives of others.
In the Fáfnismál the dying dragon Fafnir talks of their myriad origins.
“Of many births
the Norns must be,
Nor one in race they were;
Some to gods, others
to elves are kin,
And Dvalin’s daughters some”
If his words are true then they are not a race but an order of beings, drawing power from the wellspring of creation that is beyond all that is known in the Nine Realms.
The Powers of the Nornir
All Norns have the power to influence fate. At the birth of a child, they are said to appear and to use their magic to weave an unbreakable spell that seals up the fate of the newborn for a lifetime and beyond.
Some Norns are said to be kind and bestow a happy, easy, or glorious life upon the child. Others are evil and curse mortals to lives of hardship and shame. Once the Norns have made their magic, no supplications, sacrifices, or worship can change their minds.
These maidens mold the destinies of living beings and know what will come to pass for each one. They are therefore often supplicated to reveal what the future holds so that gods, mortals, and other beings can gird themselves in advance or foolishly try to avert their allotted fate.
The Norns of the Well of Destiny
Of the many Norns believed to exist in the realms, three sisters inspire more fear and awe than all the others together. They are known for their power to influence the destiny of all creation, including the fates of the gods themselves.
These sisters are Jötnar, giantesses, who have been given the role of commanding the fate of all nine realms. Their origins are steeped in mystery although some say they are descended from the giant Norfi and his daughter Nott.
In the Lay of Vafthrudnir, they are described as ‘Hamingiur’, or protective spirits, and their father or guardian is one Mögthrasir.
O’er people’s dwellings
of Mögthrasir’s maidens,
the sole Hamingiur
who are in the world,
although with Jötuns nurtured.
Whatever their true nature we meet them throughout the long arc of the Nordic sagas, sometimes bestowing cryptic wisdom upon gods and mortals, sometimes directly intervening in their lives.
The names of the Norns
Their names are revealed in the Voluspa. They are Urd, Verdandi, and Skul. They live at the base of the world tree Yggdrasil by Urðarbrunnr, the Well of Fate and their names have meanings that give clues to their roles in our fleeting lives.
Thence come the maidens
mighty in wisdom,
Three from the dwelling
down ‘neath the tree;
Urth is one named,
Verthandi the next,–
On the wood they scored,–
and Skuld the third.
Laws they made there,
and life allotted
To the sons of men,
and set their fates.
Urðr also known as Udr and Urd, means ‘fate’ or ‘what has passed’. She is the oldest in appearance, a crone, and always looks backward to the past. Her presence is often benign and gives insight into the meaning of past deeds.
Verðandi, also known as Verdandi, means ‘what is passing into being’. She is young in appearance, strong and determined, looking fearlessly straight ahead as she weighs up the actions of the day. She may advise on what actions are to be taken in the present moment.
Skuld means ‘what shall come to pass’, and is the most feared, least benign of the three sisters. As the other two weave destines it is she who often tears asunder their work and confounds the actions of living beings, throwing them into confusion.
This third sister, named Skuld, is veiled, mysterious, and holds a book within which the future is written and which always remains closed in her hand.
The Norns names are ancient in origin
Their names are ancient and stem from root words of the ancient Norse language. Urdr and Verdandi both arise from the Old Norse verb verða ‘to become’. This word derives from the Germanic word wurdiz which in turn derives from the Proto-indo-European word ‘wert’.
The meaning of this root word is ‘to turn’. Thus the Nornir giantesses were named at a time when language itself was in its infancy on the tongues of mortals.
The name of Skuld derives from the Norse verb skulu meaning ‘need/shall/must come into being’. Events foretold by her must come to pass and no power in the 9 realms may prevent them.
Responsibilities of the Norns
Here follow the main tasks and roles held by the mighty sisters of the well.
Watering the World Tree
The three sisters daily water Yggdrasil, the world tree, to ensure its survival until the time of Ragnarok. The fate of all worlds depends upon their care of the great tree that supports the existence of all beings.
Casting Rune Magic
Norns are the mistresses of Rune magic and carve symbols into the bark of Yggdrasil that shape the destinies of all the worlds. Odin is wise indeed and yet it is from the Norns that he gained his knowledge of the runes. Had it not been for them, the allfather may never have known of this powerful magic.
Guiding the Gods
It is recounted in the Voluspa that the gods supped their mead and lived a life of ease until the three Jötnar maidens arrived at the foot of the world tree. Since they began carving their runes the charmed lives of the gods have been disturbed.
In their dwellings at peace
they played at tables,
Of gold no lack
did the gods then know,–
Till thither came
up giant-maids three,
Huge of might,
out of Jotunheim.
Are these Jötnar then enemies of the gods? Is their presence at the root of the great tree revenge for the slaughter of the Jötun race by Odin and his brothers? Or have they come to ensure the survival of the realms after the time of Ragnarok? Odin himself knows not the answer to this question.
Foretelling the Future
Despite the questionable role they hold in the lives of the gods, the Aesir and Vanir regularly consult the Norns hoping to learn something of their futures. It is said that not a day passes at the Well of Udr without a visit from a god or goddess seeking their cryptic wisdom.
Weaving the Web of Fate
The three sisters are said to weave complex webs, the diverse colors of which foretell the kind of future they hold. They design according to the dictates of Orlog, the law of the universe, not according to their own wishes.
Perhaps this is why sometimes the Norns will warn gods and mortals, hoping to help us avoid the consequences of inexorable laws over which none, not even the Fates themselves have any control.
Caring for the Swans of the Well of Fate
The Jötnar maidens also care for the swans that reside at the Well of Fate and from whom all other swans are descended.
How many Norns are there?
The three Jötun sisters are the most famous of the Norns but in the Gylfaginning Odin informs Gylfii, King of Sweden that there are many more.
They claim no common kin:
Some are of Æsir-kin,
some are of Elf-kind,
and some are Dvalinn‘s daughters.
Fafnir the dragon confirms this to the dying Sigurd.
Of many births
the Norns must be,
Nor one in race they were;
Some to gods, others
to elves are kin,
And Dvalin’s daughters some.
The words of such as these must be respected.
Main Appearances in the great Legends
Fate cannot be separated from the actions of the gods. Because of this the Norns are ever-present in the greatest of their adventures. Although they permeate the legends, they rarely, however, intervene directly and appear mostly in reference or occasionally in premonitory dreams.
Often we hear their names used as main protagonists lament their fate and unjust treatment at the hands of the great weavers of destiny.
In the bloody story of Gudrun, they appear in a dream to her husband Atli, warning him of his fate at her hands. The mystery of such appearances runs deep for surely it was the fates who guided Gudrun to commit the deed. Why then do they take pains to warn him of a destiny he will surely not escape?
The story of the great skald Nornagesta derives from their direct intervention in his birth. Udr and Verdandi predict a great life for the newborn, but Skuld, offended by a mortal in the birth chamber the boy to live only as long as the taper survives. Once the candle is burnt down to the base the child will die.
Udr cannot change her sister’s curse, but acting quickly she extinguishes the flame, saving the almost exhausted taper, and warns the mother to always keep it safe. This allows the boy to live as long as the cursed artifact is in her keeping.
The Norns and Ragnarok
The Norns are said to protect the worlds, but also to be the architects of Ragnarok, the end time of the gods. It is they who will bring upon humanity the horror of the Fimbulwinter that causes mortals to lose their common feeling and prey upon each other like beasts.
In the wake of Ragnarok however, the forces of malice will be destroyed and a new age of peach will come to pass in the Nine realms. Ruled over by kind and wise Baldur, all creation will enter a time of peace and plenty with no threat of further calamity.
Will the Norns survive this disaster of their own making? On this subject, the annals are silent.
The Norns in Norse Religion
Norn Porridge was offered to Norse mothers after childbirth. This was an attempt to encourage the Norns to weave a happy fate for the newborn. Other than this, however, the Vikings did not worship the fates as deities.
Bearing in mind the fate of Nornagesta they were careful to respect the Norns at all times but fearful of overstepping the boundaries of such powerful and capricious beings.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who are the three Norns?
They are Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, three giantesses who watch over and decide the fate of all beings in the 9 realms.
Why are the Norns important?
They weave the future and decide the destiny of all living beings in all 9 realms. The Norns water the World Tree from the well of Urd. They carve runes into the tree which shapes the destinies of all worlds.
Are the Norns witches?
No. Although versed in magic, they are far more powerful than a common witch or even a god who uses witchcraft. Their power to shape the future transcends all other forms of magic.
Where did the Norns come from?
The fates are elves, giants, and dwarves before they are given the role of Norn. The three main Norns, Udr, Verdandi, and Skuld are descendants of the giant Norfi, through his daughter Nott, the personification of night.
Are the Norns sisters?
The three Norns who reside at the foot of Yggdrasil are sisters. They are not related to the many other Norns who traverse the 9 realms.
Can you worship the Norns?
You can try. Offer Norn porridge to the mother of a newborn to ask their favor in the life of the child. Be careful, as even Odin himself is limited in what he can ask of these powerful beings.