Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Germanic Fatalism

The word fatalism, in the modern context, conjures up the image of a person whose life is adrift and rudderless.  To be a fatalist in the eyes of contemporary society is to give up all control over what happens to you by surrendering everything to the whims of forces far beyond one's control.  In our high-stress, high-demand world the idea of being in total control of yourself and your surroundings is a very powerful one.  The idea of submitting to forces beyond oneself is so utterly terrifying it is understandable as to why the fatalistic perspective is so heavily mocked and derided. 

Further complicating matters is the heavy influence of Christian thinking on our understanding of fatalism.  In Christianity everything in the world is governed by God's Will.  The Will of God is perfect, unerring, and all-encompassing.  All things, good and bad, are the result of God's Will which gives rise to the concept of theodicy to justify the issue of suffering in a world governed by an all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, just, and loving master.  While the concept of theodicy may provide comfort in some abstract sense it can also inspire the opposite response, creating the impression of a vast being snuffing out lives like a child frying ants with a magnifying glass.  Being reduced to a bug on a plate is a concept which creates some pretty understandable fear in the hearts of many.  In such a world view when one is at the mercy of God, fate, or other greater forces it puts one in a situation where they suffer from a total loss of control over their destiny.  Over-correcting by seeking total control of one's personal life when viewed in this sense could be seen as an act of profound denial.

Fatalism in the Germanic world, much like the understanding of suffering, comes at the whole question from a very different tack.  Just as humans are not born flawed and marked with sin in the pre-Christian Germanic worldview so to does fatalism take on a different form.  Unlike the Christian concept of God's all-encompassing plan Germanic fatalism comes from a much more nuanced understanding of the universe; not surprising when you have a cosmology with at least three different divine tribes filled with countless members in a universe with nine worlds inhabited by an even greater variety of beings of all kinds!  In the Germanic world the forces that shape our lives and destinies are wyrd and orlog.  The push and pull between these two forces has a major impact in shaping our lives and unlike the ineffable, distant Divine Plan every individual being is a key part of this dynamic.  To understand this we must first understand what these forces are.

Orlog, a word sharing linguistic origins with the words for law and other absolutes, are the facts of one's existence.  In the Scandinavian cosmology these facts, such as the circumstances of our birth and the time of our death, are determined by the three Norns.  Orlog represents the idea of those things which are.  They are the parameters for action, possibility, and development.  Wyrd is the other side of the coin from orlog.  Wyrd translates to mean that which is becoming or has become.  It is the uncertainty of life and existence which lie beyond the power of the Norns.  Our wyrd, unlike our orlog, is shaped by our actions, our interactions with other beings in Midgard and beyond, and our responses to the circumstances dictated by one's orlog. 

This leads to a number of very different ethical and practical assumptions from living under the giant microscope.  While there are many things which have already been determined, most importantly the moment of our birth and the time of our passing(1), there is far more which is not certain.  The fact that one's circumstances and demise are already fixed and there are far mightier forces at work in the world does not make one helpless.  On the contrary while one's conditions and surroundings exert considerable influence on what one can do they are not the end-all be-all of human possibility.  While it is definitely true those who are born into more privileged positions are in a much better position to explore these possibilities the lesson of wyrd is that not all things are pre-determined.  There are many ways, some of which may have not yet been imagined, one can change their life for the better for themselves and those around them.  The fact that one's circumstances are fixed is not the point; what you do about them is up to you.

After all, there is a very special place in the sagas for those who struggle against mighty odds in spite of certain defeat.  The greatest example of this is the grand cosmic drama of Ragnarok.  In the struggle of creation, destruction, and re-creation the Aesir are fully aware Ragnarok is their pre-determined unavoidable end.  No matter what they do, how they prepare, or how they act sooner or later it will come.  Yet in spite of this unavoidable, absolute orlog the Aesir try anyway.  Thor battles hostile giants while valkyries prowl the battlefields of Midgard for soldiers to fight in the last war.  Odin plots, schemes, and works to delay its coming with his every breath.  Tyr sacrificed his right hand to ensure Fenrir, prophesied to devour the world, so the beast could be bound in spite of the certainty that one day it would break its bonds.  The same grim defiance of the dictates of the universe permeates the sagas.  Gunnar rides out to confront Atli in spite of warnings that doing so could be the end of him(2).  Beowulf confronts the great dragon in his old age in spite of the near-certainty of his demise in doing so(3).  Indeed the attitude of acting in spite of and in defiance of one's fate is a theme which runs strong throughout the sagas.  As best said in the words of Skirnir:

Boldness is better than plaints can be
For him whose feet must fare
To a destined day has mine age been doomed
And my life's span thereto laid(4)

The concept goes beyond the mythic image of the three spinners at the foot of the Yggdrasil pulling thread from the waters of the three wells.  It is an understanding of life which addresses the totality and impact of every action, re-action, and possibility of every circumstance.  Some things; like gravity, DNA, family, and place of birth, are already determined.  All the rest is the direct consequence of the deeds, words, and actions of oneself and others.  The intersection of these actions and their interactions is wyrd.  The bounds of the web are set but the shape, pattern, and form of it are in the hands of those who are influenced by it.  While there are forces in this world which are far mightier than any one person at the end of the day the response of the modern Heathen is not to curl up in fear of its awe and power but to stand tall, act, and be an active participant in the shaping of our fates.  The end and the beginning are set; the rest is up to us.

1) Voluspo 20, Poetic Edda, Henry Adams Bellows translation
2) Atlakvitha 19-25, Poetic Edda, Henry Adams Bellows translation
3) Beowulf XXXV 55-74, retrieved from the Gutenberg Project at
4) Skirnirsmol 13, Poetic Edda, Henry Adams Bellows Translation


  1. And due to that idea, we have the concept of taking responsibility for our actions. For our actions not only influence our own lives, but those of others. So it is up to us to stand up and put up a hand and say 'Yes, I did this' (or didn't do this, as the case may be). This again brings an interesting perspective on the concept of boasting: taking pride in the actions we have taken. Amongst some heathens this is a standard part of a symbel.